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New resort, hotel, golf course projects poised to increase Lake County's California tourism profile

Lake County tourism industry by the numbers

Travel-related spending: $180.7 million

• Food service: $51.5 million

• Accommodations: $32.6 million

• Entertainment and recreation: $25 million

• Retail sales: $23.2 million

• Local transportation and gasoline: $22.2 million

• Food stores: $11 million

Neighbor comparisons: Sonoma County, $2.2 billion; Napa County, $1.9 billion; Mendocino County, $484 million, Yolo County, $454.3 million

Share of North Coast spending: 13.9%

State and local tax revenue: $12.8 million

Employment: 1,800

• Accommodations: 1,166

• Entertainment and recreation: 366

• Retail: 170

• Ground transportation: 63

• Other: 34

Source: “Economic Impact of Travel in California 2010-2019,” Dean Runyan Associates for Visit California

Note: Visit California’s definition of North Coast covers Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Reeling after several wildfires over the past several years, Lake County is attracting several sizable resort and “glamping” projects, a potential boom, especially for the pandemic- struck restaurant and hospitality industries.

. Lake County’s leisure and hospitality sector jobs were down 22% in October from a year before, to 930 from 1,200, according to the state Employment Development Department.

But Lake County’s tourism-related employment is figured to be significantly higher, covering 1,800 jobs when connected businesses are included such as food stores and gas stations, according to the 2019 statewide economic impact report by Visit California.

Welcome back, Konocti

After being closed for over a decade, one of Lake County’s biggest employers, hotels and venues for big-name entertainment started to show signs of renewed life this summer under new ownership.

On Sept. 18, the 3,000-square-foot Boatyard Market convenience store, fuel dock and boat ramp reopened at Konocti Harbor Resort near the south shore town of Kelseyville, just in time to host the NewJen Bass Tournaments weigh-in on Clear Lake that weekend.

“Clear Lake is one of the best large-mouth bass fishing holes in the world,” said Russell Hamel, project manager.

He noted that the $1 billion-a-year bass tournament industry attracts enthusiasts from around the world. The property seeks to host at least a few more tournaments next year.

The first phase of the resort renovation was originally envisioned to reopen in June, but setbacks from the 2018 massive Mendocino–Lake fire, 2019 flooding and pandemic rollback of travel and leisure lodging caused the reopening to be pushed into next spring, according to Hamel.

But visitors who frequented the property in its past life will notice the updates to paint and siding. Aging heating and cooling systems have been upgraded to handle the county’s hot summers and chilly winters.

“Our target audience is the Sacramento area and the Bay Area, and they drive up to two hours to get here and then they have nowhere to stay,” he said.

Around the lake are only a few hundred hotel rooms that quickly fill up from fishing tournaments and weddings at the county’s growing number of wineries. Konocti Harbor Resort plans to bring back 260 rooms.

In addition to the wharf work and hotel rooms, the renovation plan includes a 2,000-square-foot full-service spa, restaurant and two bars plus the reopening of the 1,200-person indoor and 6,000-attendee outdoor concert and meeting venues that attracted large crowds for concerts over the decades.

“It took a number of years to build, and it will take some years to be done completely,” Hamel said. The project timeline now calls for another three to five years of work.

Before it closed in 2009 facing dwindling attendance and financial challenges under the previous ownership, the resort employed as many as 700 at its peak. The refurbished resort won’t likely match that number, Hamel said.

An undisclosed Bay Area family purchased the property in early 2018 for about $5 million. The property had suffered from years of deferred maintenance to the builds and the resort’s dedicated water, wastewater and fire-suppression systems. A “substantial” sum is being spent on upgrades, Hamel said.

The two main sections of the resort are the waterfront and The Havens area farther back from the shore. With the pandemic, the ownership has decided to spend the fall and winter updating just over 100 rooms and common areas such as the restaurant and bar. Gone are the linear miles of carpet, laid down in layers over the years, and in are plank flooring and nicer furniture.

“We’re not trying to build the Four Seasons here, but we want to build a comfortable resort with a clean environment,” Hamel said.

Success with regional vacationers in the pandemic

At Wyndham Destinations’ timeshare resort on Highway 20 in the north lake community of Nice, the 88 one-, two- and three-bedroom units plus penthouse suites has been enjoying an uptick in visitors in the past several months looking for experiences within driving distance from home.

“While we’re continuing to closely adhere to the state’s travel protocols, travel trends this summer and fall have shown a willingness for travelers to vacation closer to home with resorts like the WorldMark Clear Lake that make it easy for Californians to drive to,” Bennett told the Business Journal in an email. “Nationally, more than 90% of our timeshare owners have traveled by car to their destination, and our arrivals mirror that trend.”

Tourism officials in Napa and Sonoma counties during the pandemic have said a starting point in their strategies for building back hotel occupancy and visitor spending to previous levels is to woo back visitors looking for trips within a few hours by car from home. That’s because public hesitance to fly and various international and national restrictions for doing so have pushed the return of those tourists into the future.

Lake County tourism industry by the numbers

Travel-related spending: $180.7 million

• Food service: $51.5 million

• Accommodations: $32.6 million

• Entertainment and recreation: $25 million

• Retail sales: $23.2 million

• Local transportation and gasoline: $22.2 million

• Food stores: $11 million

Neighbor comparisons: Sonoma County, $2.2 billion; Napa County, $1.9 billion; Mendocino County, $484 million, Yolo County, $454.3 million

Share of North Coast spending: 13.9%

State and local tax revenue: $12.8 million

Employment: 1,800

• Accommodations: 1,166

• Entertainment and recreation: 366

• Retail: 170

• Ground transportation: 63

• Other: 34

Source: “Economic Impact of Travel in California 2010-2019,” Dean Runyan Associates for Visit California

Note: Visit California’s definition of North Coast covers Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

“People will want to make sure that not only they can travel but they can travel safely and have a safe experience in coming here to Sonoma County,” said Todd O'Leary, vice president of marketing and communications for Sonoma County Tourism at the Business Journal's virtual Business Recovery Conference in May.

Development sites for boutique luxury hotels, villas, golf courses and polo grounds would cover 1,400 acres of the property. (Guenoc Valley project environmental impact report)
Development sites for boutique luxury hotels, villas, golf courses and polo grounds would cover 1,400 acres of the property. (Guenoc Valley project environmental impact report)

Big resort on the Napa-Lake border

The biggest hospitality project on the horizon for Lake County is a 16,000-acre ultraluxury resort in Guenoc Valley off Highway 29 near Middletown. The project by Lotusland Investment Holdings was approved by the Board of Supervisors on July 21.

Approvals allow for 400 hotel units in five “boutique” complexes plus 450 resort units, 1,400 estate villas, 500 workforce housing bedrooms, according to the environmental impact report. The goal is to build it over a decade.

But the development has run into legal opposition from an environmental justice group that has accuses the county of inadequate review of concerns about impacts to wildlife, traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, water resources and aesthetics. The complaint from the Center for Biological Diversity, filed in August, claims the county didn’t properly consider project alternatives or address the group’s earlier comments on the draft document. Species of concern to the organization include golden eagles, foothill yellow legged frogs and western pond turtles.

Peter Broderick, the Tucson, Arizona-based groups lead attorney in the case, told the Business Journal that it is still compiling the administrative record for the matter and a hearing is likely several months away.

The first phase of the Guenoc Valley project would cover 1,415 acres and include 127 hotel units, 141 resort cottages, 50 temporary workforce hotel units, 20 campsites, 100 workforce cohousing units and 401 residential villas.

Also part of that would be a 55-acre outdoor entertainment area, spa, sports fields, polo grounds, a new golf course and practice facility, and commercial space.

Of the total property acreage, about 12,000 acres wouldn’t be developed, including 2,700 acres of open space and nearly 2,000 acres of agricultural preserve. That includes preservation of 1,600 acres of oak woodland.

Lotusland, a San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based group, purchased the property four years ago. Maha Resort and Developments is handling entitlements.

Inside a demonstration Huttopia glamping tent on the Six Sigma Ranch property in Lake County in 2020. (courtesy of Six Sigma Ranch)
Inside a demonstration Huttopia glamping tent on the Six Sigma Ranch property in Lake County in 2020. (courtesy of Six Sigma Ranch)

Glamping comes to Lake County

At the 4,300-acre Six Sigma Ranch at 13372 Spruce Grove Road southeast of the lake, the Ahlmann family has been looking for more ways to attract visitors to the loop road off the Highway 29 thoroughfare between Calistoga and Lower Lake. And the working farm, winery and trails also have attracted a global “glamping” group that plans to add Lake County to its luxury camping sites.

The capacity for campers and the blend of wine, farming and outdoor recreation attracted Huttopia to ink a land-lease agreement with the Ahlmanns for one of a camp. Named for the combination of “hut” and “utopia,” the 21-year-old French company has 57 locations in France, China and North America, including one in Quebec, Canada, and two in the U.S. Northeast. The company said it has about 11,000 annual bookings, which it calls “pitches,” and annual revenue of 55 million euros (nearly $67 million).

Two years ago, a Huttopia scout for California sites was returning to San Francisco after an unsuccessful trip to the North Coast when he happened across Six Sigma’s wine-tasting sign. He turned in and reportedly was taken with the property during the 2-mile drive up the entry road. The scout’s report led to a visit from the Bossanne family that founded Huttopia.

Beside the Lake County property’s characteristics, there were three key selling points for Huttopia, according to Margeaux Boussane, brand and business developer for Canada and the United States.

First, the area is still “off the beaten track” but is poised for growth in the next few years. Second, it is close to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Third, California is the place to be for glamping, a growing movement of luxurious camping with fine dining and access to amenities.

“Californians have a real ‘outdoor’ culture around camping, hiking, road tripping, National Parks and National Forests,” she said in an email. “It is one of the most diverse environments in the United States, and it is very exciting to have projects in this state. The climate helps, as it is possible to find temperate winters and the camping season is longer. California is also a very populated state, and it is easy to be a few hours’ drive away from a big urban center.”

The plan for the Lake County camp is to put in on 160 acres of the property 150 units, ranging in size from five-person tents on a platform to five- and six-person cabins with their own bathrooms. The cabins are produced in pieces in France then shipped to the camp for assembly by local contractors.

Also planned for are a central facility with camper check-in, restaurant, bar and swimming pool. A spa recently was added to the project mix.

A demonstration unit for five campers was constructed early this year next to the Six Sigma Winery tasting room. The Ahlmanns have been talking with county officials about project requirements and expect to present the concept to the Planning Commission in January. The goal is to be able to start excavation this spring ahead of a May 2022 opening.

For vintner and rancher Kaj Ahlmann, getting more people to the property will help with the wine and meat ventures there.

“Our strategy is we want to sell bottles of wine from the tasting room,” he said.

The family purchased the property in 2000 and opened Six Sigma Winery five years later. Today, it produces around 10,000 cases a year from nearly 50 acres of vines. Suggested retail price for the wines is $20–$48 a bottle. The property is permitted to plant nearly 200 acres of vineyards.

Currently, the ranch also has 100 Angus cattle and 50 sheep to “mow” between the vines. Slaughterhouse overcapacity forced the Ahlmanns to downsize from the 20-30 swine normally on the property. The meat is sold from the tasting room or served at winemaker dinners.

Like a number of North Coast vintners of its size, Six Sigma has sold wine primarily to on-premises-consumption venues such as restaurants and directly to consumers in over 40 states via a sizable mailing list. With restaurants and tasting rooms pressed for patrons under varying government restrictions during the pandemic, Six Sigma has turned again to the property as a key draw.

This year it has opened the property to hikers and mountain bikers, hoping that they will end their treks at one of the 20 socially distanced picnic tables outside the tasting room. Trails on the property were originally built in 2015 to host mountain bike races for local high schools. That led to a competition for racers from 110 regional high schools, with about 5,000 people and a Stanford University Medical Center mobile clinic on the property that weekend. Racers’ parents parked recreational vehicles in a meadow beside the long driveway.

Bill Coore, one of the Coore & Crenshaw project architects for the planned Brambles 18-hole golf course near Middletown, marks the outline of the ninth green in 2020. (courtesy of James Duncan)
Bill Coore, one of the Coore & Crenshaw project architects for the planned Brambles 18-hole golf course near Middletown, marks the outline of the ninth green in 2020. (courtesy of James Duncan)

Purposely unpretentious golf

Also seeking to appeal to the Wine Country visitor looking for a less-formal entertainment venue is the Brambles 18-hole golf course project on Highway 29 near Middletown. The project to construct the mostly membership-based course with a private airport at an existing glider strip was approved by the county in April.

Named to reflect the unpretentious Lake County environment, it’s been the work of Eric Berridge, a New York-based amateur golfer and major investor, and James Duncan, a golf course architect over seven years, with the property purchase about two years ago. It is designed by course experts at Coore & Crenshaw.

“We’re not trying to be Calistoga or Healdsburg,” Duncan said.

Grading for the holes, fairways, shoulders and traps was completed this year. Jan-Mar Corporation built the 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, called The Milking Parlor, which has a dining area and bar. Grass is set to be installed this spring in time for the first players to test the holes next fall and the first full season in 2022.

After the course is built, the owners plan to see how quickly the new lodging in northern Napa Valley fills up before undertaking ideas for a dormitory or similarly informal accommodations on the property, which will need utilities to be approved and extended to the property.

With roughly 11,000 cars passing the property daily, the course is envisioned to complement the nearby Guenoc Valley resort project, Duncan said. Between 50 and 100 golfers are expected to visit the property daily.

Other hotel projects on the boards

Lake County also has national branded projects in planning, according to travel industry analytics firm STR. A 70-room Comfort Inn & Suites hotel is in the works for 1842 Todd Road in Lakeport with a June 2023 target for opening. An 80-room La Quinta Inns & Suites location is being planned for 7160 Old Highway 53 in Clearlake, but that facility’s timeframe is unknown at this point, the firm said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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