Phil Kline grew up doing a job most kids would envy: catching and selling minnows. The owner of Klines Resort — a retirement community in St. Joseph County for ages 55 and up, with 159 manufactured home sites and 85 RV sites — says that when he was a kid, the resort wasn’t yet a retirement community. It was fishing cabins that families used for summer homes. Back then, families stayed for the entire summer, which meant Kline had a multitude of playmates. Twice a week he and his buddies had another job that only kids would like.
“We would literally pick up the barrels of fish guts and all that,” Kline says, chuckling about the fish-cleaning house. “We’d load up the wagon with the old Cub tractor and take it down the lane to a place where we dumped it into a gully.”
Although Klines Resort still has a fish-cleaning house, well … it’s a bit different now. Fishermen wrap up fish remains, Kline says, and place them into a freezer — no mess and no smell — until they get pitched on garbage day.
“That’s one example of how things have changed,” he says, laughing again.
Growing up at Klines Resort
Klines Resort is located on 160 acres on Portage Lake, about five miles south of Vicksburg and five miles northwest of Mendon. Originally Kline’s father and mother, Paul and Joyce Kline, wanted to purchase the property that is now Klines Resort for more farmland. They owned Maple Shade Farms in Mendon (still in the Kline family) and had been purchasing other area farms to expand operations. In the 1930s, Albert and Myrna Hines had started the fishing camp on the property with primitive cabins and named it Hines Resort.
“Mr. Hines refused to sell him (Kline’s dad) just the land,” Kline says. “He said, ‘You have to take it all.’”
So, in 1962 the elder Klines did just that on one condition: that the Hineses remain to manage the fishing resort, allowing Paul Kline to continue farming. The arrangement worked well for a few years, but then the Hineses’ health failed. When Phil Kline was in fourth grade, he says, his parents picked up everything and moved with their seven — soon to be eight — children to the resort. Besides taking care of the fish-cleaning house, Phil Kline also worked in the resort’s camp store, selling penny candy, bait and basic supplies.
“The highlight of the week was when the ice cream man came,” Kline says. “And on one day the Roelof Dairy man came, another day the candy man came, the bait guy came, and the Be-Mo Potato Chip guy came.”
Trees, trees and more trees
On Kline’s office wall hangs a map of trees at the resort, listing 65 species that have been planted throughout the years, including northern red oak, sassafras, American sweetgum and maples. From the moment they purchased the resort, Kline’s parents started planting trees, bringing one young maple from their farm. Last year Kline’s younger brother, Kevin, a landscape architect, rounded up a variety of species to plant for their dad’s 90th birthday because Paul Kline has always been a tree lover.
“When we would go camping in the fall, it would be to go see the biggest white pine in the state,” Kline says. “Or he knew where the biggest tulip tree in the state was, and he’d go see it.”
An area of the resort that once was an open field is now a forest where retirees walk or drive golf carts on trails. Back in the day, Paul Kline worked with a forester so that he knew how to properly manage a forest. He also liked to experiment with unusual species.
“When I was a kid, we planted something called corkscrew willows all along the lakefront,” Phil Kline says, noting that the trees didn’t last long. “It was a willow tree that had a corkscrew shape instead of just those straight hanging branches.”
Leaving and returning
In 1974, Phil Kline graduated from Vicksburg High School and left home to attend college at John Wesley College in Owosso, where he received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. He went on to receive a secondary education degree from Spring Arbor College and a master’s degree in school administration from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana.
He remained away for nearly 20 years, working in Christian education, as did his wife, Tama, who received her bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and teaching credentials from Spring Arbor College. Their last jobs before returning to Southwest Michigan were at Lakeview Assembly of God School in Indianapolis, where Kline served as a principal and his wife as a teacher. When his parents asked for help at home in 1995, the Klines returned.
“We said, ‘We’ll give it two years, and then we’ll go back to our education work,’” he says. “And, well, two years turned into 23 now. The first year we moved home, my wife got pregnant with our only child, Joseph. That kind of changed our perspective. We decided this would be a good place to raise Joe, and it was.”
By the time the Klines took over the resort from Phil’s parents, it had transitioned into a retirement community. Back in 1985, the Fair Housing Act established the concept of retirement communities and provided a specific amount of time for a community to declare itself as such, Kline says. His parents decided to make the switch.
The community was naturally evolving into a retirement park anyway, Kline explains, saying that his parents offered “snowbird discounts” in the 1970s to those who left for the winter. The resort had also already met the criteria of a certain percentage of residents being 55 and older already living there. But there was an adjustment period: The younger Klines and the residents had to become acclimated to working with each other. In the past, Kline says, people knew if they wanted to do something they went to Paul (Kline’s dad), who would always say, “Yeah, go ahead!” because he was so busy.
“Whereas Joyce (Kline’s mom) is going to say, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘Follow the rules,’” Kline says, smiling. “I became the one to say no because my wife has a hard time saying no. My wife is a people person. She does a great job at the front desk.”
Evolution of the resort
When the Klines returned to run the resort, they initiated many improvement projects, such as rebuilding the water system, upgrading the sewer system, and rebuilding the roads and clubhouse. They also built a water tower, at which point Kline became a licensed water works system operator. He also has licenses as a waste treatment plant operator and licensed residential builder, all of which require continuing education credits and keep him current with licensing and regulation issues that impact the community. But Kline enjoys working in a variety of capacities and building things. Wearing different hats, he says, also keeps costs down because he doesn’t need to hire outside sources.
“That’s just one example of how the resort has been able to evolve,” Kline says. “And really I credit Mom and Dad because they sold the resort to us on a land contract. That allowed us enough income to be able to make the other improvements that we needed to make. So many places get cash-strapped, for whatever reason, and don’t reinvest in the property.
We’ve been able to reinvest in the property, and it’s rewarding to be able to see the results.”
In 2011, Klines Resort opened its new 10,000-square-foot clubhouse. The Klines originally planned on improving the original clubhouse, which was built around 1967, but it made more sense to tear it down, Kline says. The new clubhouse includes power doors, elevators, computers, a café, a dining room that seats 144 people, a fireside recreation room, an exercise room and a commercial kitchen.
“In the old building we set up electric frying pans on top of washing machines to do our pancake breakfast,” Kline says, chuckling.
The new clubhouse is hopping with activities such as Sunday night Christian services, gospel concerts, community picnics, pancake breakfasts, quilting, woodworking and card games.
Portage Lake covers 500 acres and is abundant with fish, so fishing is also a popular activity at the resort.
As he tools around the resort with a reporter, Kline points out the RV section, which includes Park Models. These homes must be less than 400 square feet, he says, and are licensed as RVs, although they can’t be towed down the road like a trailer. Some of them have lofts, and many have added-on three-season rooms.
“In the South, they’re very, very popular,” Kline notes.
Between 2010 and 2012, the resort also added tennis, pickleball and basketball courts and improved the horseshoe pitches and shuffleboard courts. One of the toughest decisions the Klines had to make, he says, was whether or not to tear down the resort’s old fishing cabins. They turned to landscape architect Larry Harris, of L.L. Harris & Associates in Kalamazoo, to help guide their decision. Because the cabins were located on a floodplain, Kline says, they didn’t have sewer service. In the end, the old fishing cabins came down.
“Because we knew our target market was the retirees, we knew they wouldn’t be satisfied walking to a cement block bathroom anymore,” Kline says, “which is what they were doing in the old days.”
A great deal of forward thinking goes into managing Klines Resort, Kline says. But that is his favorite part of the job. He calls the never-ending project planning his “mojo.” It’s also the most challenging part of his occupation. For instance, repainting the water tower has turned into a major project, he says, because of the required application and approvals from the state.
“And we’re going to design a new logo to go on the water tower,” he says. “I really enjoy that kind of thing. I need something like that to be looking forward to.”
He likens the challenge of constant planning to riding a bike on a trail with a deep rut. A person can’t look down, he says, because they will crash — they need to keep their eyes focused ahead.
“That’s what I have to do here,” he says. “What’s the next person that’s going to live in that house going to need?”
As for the future of the resort, Kline laughs when he is asked whether another Kline will take the helm someday. “I told my son he has until I turn 70 to make up his mind,” he says.
The Klines’ 22-year-old son, Joseph, is a senior in WMU’s Haworth College of Business. Phil Kline — who is 63 years old, as is his wife — points out that he has learned something over the years: “that God supplies your needs when you need it, not early.” He says he trusts that the same will happen when their retirement rolls around.
“And seriously,” he says, grinning, “we like it enough that we’re going to keep doing it as long as we can. I don’t plan to retire until I’m 75.”