By KIMBERLY LEWIS
For a small contingent of Carroll County officials, the nearly hour-long executive session Friday would determine whether efforts to save the lodge at the Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center and their last minute pleas for time would be answered.
In the end, they were disappointed, but not surprised, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District Board of Directors voted to close the 104-room lodge, located in Carroll County near Dellroy and Sherrodsville, on Oct. 1.
The facility is owned by the MWCD and has been in continuous operation since 1965. The resort includes the main lodge and meeting center, two golf courses (an 18-hole regulation course and a lighted, nine-hole, par-3 course), 17 vacation cabins and indoor and outdoor swimming pools, along with other amenities.
"This has been a very difficult decision for the obvious reasons - dedicated employees could be losing their jobs, public services supported by the taxes paid by the lodge could be affected and the long service to the community by the lodge may be coming to an end," said John M. Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director/secretary. "But despite the tremendous efforts of federal, state, county and local leaders, as well as business officials, the economic challenges simply are too great to overcome."
Lagging business, a challenging economy and the rising costs of maintenance and improvements needed for the hotel and meeting center in the lodge were the primary factors identified in the board's decision.
"If you were a for-profit corporation, then this would be a simple decision. You are responsible to your shareholders and you would close Atwood Lodge," acknowledged Glenn Enslen of Congressman Zack Space's office. "But your shareholders are the public. You have to consider the negative impact on those employees losing their jobs, closing the single largest employer in Carroll County, the spillover spending, the tax base and the negative impact beyond the county. There are options out there. ... Just give us more time. I believe its do-able. If you close (the lodge), you are hurting your shareholders."
Initially, John M. Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director/secretary, recommended closing the lodge immediately. According to a MWCD press release, the financial losses suffered over the past several years, coupled with projected losses in future years, have forced this action.
As Hoopingarner outlined cost-savings measures the district needed to take, Chief Financial Officer/Treasurer James Cugliari told the board the lodge had ended 2009 with a deficit of more than $1 million and projected it would lose more than $1 million in 2010 if the lodge's operation continued as is.
"It is important MWCD finds a solution and is responsible to its shareholders. It is answerable to the public. It is not fair our other recreation areas in the other 17 counties are footing the bill to keep the lodge open," Hoopingarner said.
The board "represents the citizens of 18 counties. It is not fair we sacrifice what needs to be done at our other reservoirs to keep this one operating," said board member and Carroll County resident David Parham. "It is a sad day when I vote to close down this facility. It is a treasure for the conservancy and the community, not financially, but it is something you can enjoy. I hope you can come up with something to save it."
According to the release, the board has directed the MWCD staff to prepare and implement a plan of action to close the facility Oct. 1, and to modify the management contract with Prospera Management of Pittsburgh. As part of the plan, the lodge will be open weekends only (except for special events) beginning Feb. 1 through April 30, and then open for full operations seven days a week from May 1 through Sept. 30.
In the interim, the MWCD will secure a broker and seek to sell the facility, according to action taken by the board.
The MWCD board had announced more than a year ago it would seek proposals from interested companies to purchase the lodge and its 330 acres. The board soundly rejected both proposals following the executive session.
Funds collected by the MWCD assessment of property owners in the region for maintenance and rehabilitation of the reservoirs and dams are prohibited by law from being used to financially support operations at Atwood Lake Resort, Hoopingarner said.
Day-to-day operations of the facility have been handled through a management contract for the past several years by Prospera, which employs the staff at the lodge. The operation currently has about 20 full-time and 40 part-time employees.
Atwood Lake Park and its campgrounds and facilities are not affected by the decision to close the lodge and will be open as usual in 2010. The two marinas located in the Atwood Lake region also are open and will continue normal operations. Two major events scheduled at Atwood Lake Park - Alive 2010, the Christian music festival set for June 23-26, and the 28th Annual Atwood Area Fall Festival on Oct. 1-3 - also will be held as announced.
The news Atwood Lodge would stay open was good news for Sandy Chenal, coordinator for the Crossroads Resource Conservation and Development Council. The organization is hosting the North Central RC&D Regional Meeting at the lodge in April.
Hope Springs Eternal
Local officials in attendance who urged the board to keep the resort open said they will continue to work for solutions at the resort.
Carroll County officials had worked with the MWCD, Kent State University Tuscarawas Campus and state government officials, primarily Congressman Zack Space's office, for the past 17 months to formulate a plan to save one of the largest employers in the county. While they did not find a resolution or a new owner, the officials were given hope.
The MWCD announced early in 2009 that Atwood Lake Resort & Conference Center was for sale as one of the primary goals established by the Board of Directors for the year. The resort has been losing money for several years and was becoming an increasing drain on the MWCD's budget and ability to make improvements at its other recreation sites, including lake parks and campgrounds, Hoopingarner said.
"In 2009 alone the MWCD advanced nearly $1 million in cash to support the operation, make payroll and pay its bills," Hoopingarner said. "The continued slide in room occupancy, meeting room reservations and restaurant business does not appear as if it will turn around any time soon."
The MWCD said that room occupancy for 2009 was slightly more than 30 percent, with an estimated 60-percent occupancy rate needed to break even.
The MWCD has worked throughout the past year with various entities interested in the continued operation of Atwood Lake Resort in its present or other capacities, Hoopingarner said. In September, the MWCD, Carroll County commissioners and Kent State University Tuscarawas agreed to form a partnership for potential grant funding and/or other possible opportunities. The MWCD also advertised this fall for proposals for the outright purchase of the resort from interested buyers, and those bids were due Jan. 4.
Prospera and Kent State University Tuscarawas have offered to participate in partnerships with any potential buyers, although each has said it is not interested in purchasing the resort.
During the meeting, board members rejected two proposals presented to the MWCD for the sale of the property. Both bids offered to purchase the property for $1 with varying strategies of shared debt during upcoming operation by the proposed new owners, but were considered inappropriate to cover the value of the facility and the debt that is owed on it by the MWCD.
"It would have been irresponsible of the board to accept either proposal," said Harry Horstman, president of the Board of Directors.
Board members heard from several officials who attended the meeting and urged the board to consider keeping the lodge open until other options could be identified and implemented. Those who spoke to the board members included Trish McCullough and Glenn Enslen of the office of U.S. Rep. Zack Space (D-Dover); Carroll County Commissioner Thomas Wheaton; Amy Rutledge, executive director of the Carroll County Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Wayne Chunat of the Carroll County Economic Development Office and Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.
Hoopingarner said MWCD officials have discussed the situation with public officials from both Carroll and Tuscarawas counties, and federal and state legislators, including Space, state Sens. Joe Schiavoni (D-Canfield) and Jason Wilson (D-Columbiana), and state Reps. Mark Okey (D-Carrollton) and Allan Sayre (D-Dover). Representatives of Space, Okey and Sayre have been working closely with MWCD officials to develop a plan for the continued operation of the resort.
"Despite the best efforts of all involved, the continued ownership of the lodge by the MWCD, which is a government agency dedicated to flood reduction and water conservation, is not appropriate and is an increasing operational and financial burden on our primary mission to serve the residents and property owners of the Muskingum River Watershed," Hoopingarner said.
It would not be fair nor possible to increase lease rates and/or camping and docking fees for the other recreational programs operated by the MWCD to cover the additional costs needed to keep the lodge open, Hoopingarner said. The losses sustained by Atwood Lodge have seriously impaired the ability of the MWCD to make improvements at its other recreation facilities in the Muskingum River Watershed, he added.
Atwood Lodge is one of Carroll County's top employers, according to county officials. It also pays significant taxes to the county and township where it is located, as well as bed taxes that assist the Carroll County Convention and Visitors Bureau in its work to market the county as a tourist and overnight destination. During recent years, the lodge has had an annual payroll of nearly $2 million and paid more than $300,000 per year in real estate and other taxes to local governments. During peak operations, it employs about 150 workers.
"Closing the resort will be detrimental to the CVB and to the county. It will devastate my job - 60 percent of Atwood's bed tax funds the CVB," said Carroll County CVB Executive Director Amy Rutledge, noting the potential loss of tourism in the county and the "trickle-down affect."
Carroll County Economic Development Director Wayne Chunat noted the lodge brings in approximately 32,000 visitors to Carroll County and its closure will affect the CVB industry and tourism.
"I understand the budget crisis," said Carroll County Commissioner Tom Wheaton, pointing out the MWCD would still have debt associated with the property even with the closure. Wheaton estimates the resort generates $9 million in revenue in tourism and business in Carroll County.
"You have strong advocates in Carroll County," Wheaton said.
While the future of Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center looks bleak, the decision to close in the October did give those working toward a resolution one thing - time.
"If we close Atwood today, we are not doing our due diligence," said Horstman. "We now know when (the closure) will take place."
For more information about the MWCD, visit www.mwcd.org.