The Rookery Cottage Airbnb in Coon Rapids is a former flower shop that two Coon Rapids residents turned into a vacation home.
The Rookery Cottage Airbnb in Coon Rapids is a former flower shop that two Coon Rapids residents turned into a vacation home.

April 12, 2019

Tucked away from any major city, secluded by trees and cornfields, lies a new destination.

To get there, though, it takes braving a few dirt roads, disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and finding joy in simplicity.

To offer a new way for people to visit and discover rural areas, while restoring a local economy and highlighting the importance of Main Streets not just in urban areas, but in small communities, Coon Rapids residents are trying something new.

For the past few years, Coon Rapids residents have been taking their homes, barns or farm houses and turning them into Airbnb vacation rentals. Instead of building a hotel in Coon Rapids, community members decided they could offer something else while providing a homey feeling and rural experience that a hotel cannot always offer.

Airbnb is an online marketplace and phone application where people can access listings of houses, apartments, condos or even treehouse rentals offered all over the world and book them all by the swipe of their fingers and just a few clicks.

From farm to vacation home

When Dan Gudahl, the executive director of Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, first moved to Coon Rapids about two and a half years ago, he looked around at the rolling hills, abundance of wildlife and natural beauty and thought to himself: How do we let people in on this little secluded wonder right here in Coon Rapids, Iowa?

That’s when he had the idea to try Airbnb.

Back when he and Karla Van Roekel, a guest services manager at Whiterock Conservancy, were working to fix up what is now the “Betts Farmhouse,” Gudahl feared it would be a headache and a hassle, but now it is one the most popular Airbnb rentals Whiterock offers, Van Roekel said. One client already has been back three times to stay in it, she said.

Right now, Whiterock Conservancy has five Airbnb rentals available:

— The Historic Garst Home is listed as single bedrooms for people to stay in, but if guests do want to rent the whole house, it costs $415 a night.

— Both the Woodland Carriage House and the Hollyhock Cottage sleep seven and cost $120 a night.

— The Betts Farmhouse, which sleeps six people, costs $90 a night.

— The Oakridge Farmhouse, which sleeps 13, is $199 a night.

It isn’t that Airbnb is a new site or something unheard of — what’s unique is everything Coon Rapids’ Airbnbs have to offer, Gudahl said.

“We’ve got something that other people don’t have,” he said. “We’ve got a group of farmhouses you can come and rent and stay out on the land, in a situation like you’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”

A nest in an unexpected sanctuary

After Emily Babin and Matt Reiling got married in 2016, they decided to try something different.

They wanted to utilize the little flower shop that sat about 100 yards away from their home that backs up to Whiterock Conservancy’s hiking trails.

They wanted to find a way to share the quiet wonder they experienced every day.

So they fixed up what is now the Rookery Cottage, providing guests stopping through the area seeking a quiet space away from the rest of the world or attending a family event with a comfortable and unique place to stay.

“We love it,” Babin said. “Before we started, we thought if we get one person a month, this will be worth it to us. We are probably booked maybe one-third of the year. It’s been way busier than we thought, but we love it. It’s nice and cozy in the cold months because there’s in-floor heat, so that’s why we wanted to put this building to use.”

At the Rookery, which sleeps up to six people, guests can access Whiterock trails from the back door. During their stay, they can use a grill, fire pit, and any of the board games or records people have left over the years.

During the slow season, the Rookery costs $89 a night, but during its busy season — May through October — the cost increases to $95 a night.

When guests check in to the rookery, Babin tries to meet them as soon as they are settled to welcome them and make them feel at home, she said.

“It’s been a really great experience,” she said. “Everyone has been respectful of our place. Everyone keeps it really tidy, and I appreciate that. We haven’t had any problems. People are allowed to bring dogs, which is unique to most Airbnbs, and we don’t charge a fee because we love dogs.”

Babin said she and her husband love to showcase Coon Rapids and everything it has to offer. So far, they’ve had guests come from Nebraska, Chicago and different parts of Iowa.

“A lot of them haven’t been here before or even heard of it,” she said. “A lot of them can hike the trails, float the river, star gaze — it’s one of the darkest places in Iowa. We like giving people the rundown of the area.”

At the Rookery, there is a skillet, coffeepot, toaster and microwave for people to use to cook during the trip, and Babin said she loves being able recommend the downtown shops and bars for her guests to check out.

“It brings people to the community that might not have otherwise come here,” she said. “It promotes our businesses. There’s a new coffee shop in town. We’ve had several guests say, ‘Hey, where’s a good place for coffee?’ ”

When Babin and Reiling first began fixing up their cottage, they wanted to pick a name that was both significant to them and perfectly represented their hidden oasis.

That’s how they coined the name “Rookery Cottage,” Babin said.

“A rookery is a nesting site for some birds, particularly herons,” she said. “They prefer a quiet, undisturbed habitat, and we are right in the middle of the Raccoon River. We think of this as a quiet retreat for people to get away from the city and bustling life.”

A fixer-upper turned peaceful getaway

When Keely Sanden and her husband Cory first bought a five-bedroom home on Bridge Street in Coon Rapids, they figured they would fix it up and then sell it.

Well, when their original plan didn’t pan out, they decided to give Airbnb a shot.

“It is fun,” Keely Sanden said. “We’re in, like, month two. Our first booking was mid-January. We just did back-to-back (bookings). Our spring is a little light, then April, June, July and August, there’s a ton of bookings. Weekends, of course, are more.”

Sanden said the normal rate of their Bridge Street Bungalow Airbnb is $80 a night.

She said she and Cory originally bought the house back from the bank after it went into foreclosure. They put in all-new hardwood and linoleum floors, painted the walls and more.

Their first guest to stay at the Bridge Street Bungalow was a man from the United Kingdom who stayed at the Airbnb for two weeks. He was visiting a friend from Auburn. By the end of his trip, he swore he would be back, Sanden said.

Sanden said they get visitors from all over the Midwest as well. People soon will be coming into town for the Market to Market run. They also recently had other visitors in town for a funeral who left Sanden a note after their stay at the bungalow.

“They wrote, ‘This place was our refuge. There was so much going on, but we felt like this could be our space,’ ” she said.

Sanden said it’s nice to be able to offer a place for people to go to get away from life and just breathe.

She added that she thinks they are just getting started with the Airbnb, and they’re ready to get more bookings and keep it going.

The best of both worlds

Recently, a new downtown Airbnb opened up along Coon Rapid’s Main Street.

The Loft Airbnb offers guests not just a break from the big-city life but also a quaint place to stay, whether they are in town for business, a family visit or to explore Whiterock Conservancy — it’s right in the mix of everything.

Andy Klein, who manages the Loft, said the Airbnb opened up to guests at the beginning of March and so far, they have had all positive feedback.

“We’ve had a few people say they like the decorating and they enjoyed the location,” he said. “We’ve had people in town overflow from family events, so they’ve had plenty of space. We’ve had people book already for a wedding.”

The Loft is $99 a night to rent on Airbnb.

Klein said the Loft is a great space that offers another place for guests to stay when they come to Coon Rapids and stay overnight. Besides the Airbnbs, overnight options are limited in Coon Rapids, he said.

“It was really important for us to offer people places to stay locally, because otherwise they are spending the money in other places,” he said.

This Saturday, the Coon Rapids Development Group will be hosting a ribbon cutting and tour of the Loft along with other local businesses that are located in the Spangler Building at 523 Main St. in Coon Rapids.

The business open houses include Cady’s coffee shop, CR Fit, The Loft, Robyn Eddy’s office, Spangler Automotive, Stacy’s Studio and Boutique and Tranquil Moments. Cady’s opens at 7 a.m. and all other businesses open at 9 a.m., with a ribbon cutting ending the day at 11 a.m.

Katie Mason, the Coon Rapids community coordinator, said Coon Rapids appreciates all of the residents who took a risk and tried something new to attract people to the area while also helping bolster the economy.

“The ability to capture overnight visitors is definitely a boost not just to our economy but the opportunity for them to spend time in our community and spend money here,” she said.

Not only do Airbnbs serve as a new way for the town to make additional money, but it allows larger groups of people to come out and see everything Coon Rapids has to offer and hopefully return again, she said.

“I like the creativity that our community is putting into solving our overnight accommodation shortage and to use spaces productively,” Mason said. “Especially Whiterock, who has turned multiple farmhouses into Airbnbs.”what they saw while they were at Whiterock,” he said.

Read more about the Airbnb offerings in Coon Rapids in the Friday, April 19 edition of the Carroll Times Herald.