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Zemek's ties to Park Rapids run deep

Alan Zemek

The year was 1966, a station wagon full of kids and dogs - gear tied to the roof - was motoring up from Minneapolis to spend time on the lake.

"It was the classic 'are we there yet?'" Alan Zemek recalled of the journey.

Zemek, economist, area real estate developer and attorney, recalls strolling down to a neighbor's cabin on July 20, 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Dad's rules: No phone, no television during summer vacation on the lake.

The sojourns to Island Lake instilled an affinity for Park Rapids and the surrounding area, the connections with the community growing over time.

Thursday, he was meeting with city officials and others regarding the armory, "my next project." The state's funding of asbestos removal from the building prompted his decision to move forward. Plans call for the building to evolve into a convention center.

"My family gathers here," the Orange County, Calif. resident said.

'Weather's bad, water's cold'

The Macalaster College graduate received degrees in economics and Asian history, his economics professors "free marketers," his history teachers "dyed in the wool socialists."

"I learned to listen and filter ideas," he said, inspired by an intellectualist who said, "the mark of a developed mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas and not go crazy."

He spent his junior year of college in Japan, which would be the beginning of his exploration of the world's cultures and economies.

After earning a master's degree in business administration from the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona he was hired by the General Mills Restaurant Group, which at the time owned Red Lobster, Olive Garden, York Steak House and others.

Looking to expand Red Lobster internationally, the company sent the financial analyst to Japan, where he spent the next nine years "crunching numbers."

In 1992, at his behest, Zemek moved to Red Lobster's purchasing department, sent "everywhere the weather's bad and the water's cold" - eastern Canadian provinces, Iceland, Denmark, Scotland, Alaska, Japan and Korea among them.

"I envied the shrimp buyers," he said of his counterparts in Costa Rica. But he also ventured south of the equator - Argentina, New Zealand and Taiwan among the destinations.

"It was one of the best jobs I ever had," he said of arriving home Friday, repacking his suitcase for a departure Monday. His contacts included fisheries ministers and departments of game and fish across the globe, where he'd gain info on the season, the year class for spawn quotas and other stats on international seafood production.

But "time moves on" and marriage was on the horizon. He and Keiko, a native of Taiwan with whom he'd become acquainted in the foreign exchange program, were married in Japan in 1980.

Offering shelter from the storm

When their first child was born, "I decided to settle down. I had enough bad weather and cold water."

But he would continue to satisfy appetites, Minnesota's signature lighthouse his inspiration.

Laguna Niguel, half way between San Diego and Los Angeles, would become home. Split Rock Tavern, "offering shelter from the storm" would begin welcoming diners - and impressing food critics.

The restaurant claimed the Sterling Silver award from the Orange County Restaurant Writers Association and a Telly Award for his cable television advertising promotion of the restaurant's Champagne Sunday Brunch.

But Sept. 11, 2001, "the day the world changed," substantially impacted his culinary enterprise. "We lost 40 percent of our business in two days," he said of business travelers and tourists. "Planes weren't flying. It was another Pearl Harbor, a national emergency."

In time, he began to see a recovery, people coming in who wanted to talk about what they had seen. He would discern a change in spending. The call for filet mignon diminished; pork chops and meatloaf were the meals of choice. "And they were buying more alcohol.

"I retooled my business model to comfort food," the economist said.

Two years later, in 2003, Zemek decided to end his role as a restaurateur.

Laguna Hills, where the restaurant was located, was about to purchase the land surrounding his business for a civic center and city hall.

The two-year construction period would have "put us out of business," he said. "I sold it to the city."

Back to the home front

"What now?" Zenek said of another life's chapter ending.

So, in keeping with family tradition, he and his family headed cross-country via car to Island Lake, capturing the same photo as had been taken of himself and siblings at Preacher's Grove at Itasca State Park with his kids.

The same year, Zemek's mother, Beth, who had just finished constructing a lake home near Park Rapids, suffered a stroke.

"Her mind was sharp," Zemek said. But she'd lost the mobility on the right side of her body and couldn't speak.

Over the next four years, Zemek and his sister "traded duty," rotating two weeks of care duty.

Meanwhile, he was in the process building River Park Villas; one of them to become wheelchair accessible. "It became her home...She died in 2007, on the river."

During this period, Zemek was also going to law school in California. "It was bizarre; 1,400 people who looked like children," he said of his classmates. "They could have been my kids."

Completing law school in 2008, he was admitted to the bar in 2009.

Never trust anyone...

The couple's two children and his studies in law school would inspire his just released book, "Generation Busted."

Allison is in her first year of medical school at Stanford University and Joseph will head to the University of California-Berkeley to study electrical engineering this fall.

In 2008, as he was about to complete his law studies, oil had reached $127 a barrel. Lehman Brothers was bankrupt. "What the hell happened here?" he asked. "How did we get to the point where we drove the economy over the cliff?"

He thought about the college graduates Allison's age who were asking, "Why is it the only job I can find is the one I had in high school?" as a waitress or delivery person.

And the two-year writing project addressing "how America went broke in the age of prosperity" began.

The economist extols the U.S. Constitution in the book as the "world's first free trade agreement.

"While the Articles create the structure of governance in the political sense, the real meat of the Constitution is deeply rooted in economic policy," he points out.

These include the power to tax, coin money, regulate commerce, build roads, post offices, standardize weights and measures, grant patent rights, the unrestricted flow of goods across state lines, uniformity of customs taxes and tariffs and more.

And this document is just eight pages, he points out. "The economic policy choices...are that which created the economic miracle that swept across the continent, and then the world, within the span of a single lifetime.

"The Baby Boomers championed the phrase, 'never trust anyone over the age of 30,' to give voice to their aspirations for social change," he writes as a intro to the book.

"Their vast numbers and influence have shaped the economy and the course of politics for a generation. They were the generation of idealism and hope, but also expected instant gratification and live with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Now, after six decades of wanting it all, and having it all, the consequences are inescapable.

"In an age of prosperity, America is going broke."

Information on the book is available at www.genera

Editor's note: In upcoming editions of the Enterprise, Zemek will expand on the subjects he explores in the book via a column to be found on the Business page. "Generation Busted" is available at Beagle Books.