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  • Managing expectations at Howard Prairie

    As county takeover of popular outdoors resort progresses, some questions remain
  • Dustin Stafford jackhammers a chunk of concrete from the floor of the Howard Prairie Resort store in a move that is both literally and figuratively changing the face of the longtime fishing, boating and camping destination.
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  • Dustin Stafford jackhammers a chunk of concrete from the floor of the Howard Prairie Resort store in a move that is both literally and figuratively changing the face of the longtime fishing, boating and camping destination.
    Stafford's making room for water and drain lines for a new self-serve soda station, the first real change in the small lakeside store in decades.
    It's one sign of how the recent takeover of part of the resort by the Jackson County Parks Department will change things at this popular getaway on the Dead Indian Plateau.
    After decades of relying on independent concessionaires to run this hub of fishing and boating at Howard Prairie Lake east of Ashland, county parks will now operate the campground and marina, while contracting with the Mt. Ashland Association to operate the restaurant and store.
    The change, in theory, will allow Jackson County to use expected profits from the resort to cover smaller parks, such as the Takelma Park boat ramp on the Upper Rogue River, which can never pay their own way.
    It's an approach the county has been perfecting for four years, since park operations were jettisoned from the county general fund, which created fears that some of the county's 18 developed parks might end up being shuttered.
    "In the general-fund world, it didn't really matter who delivered the service, as long as it was delivered," says John Vial, director of Jackson County roads and parks. "Now, that's gone.
    "We want to focus on things that are profitable and things that we're good at, like running campgrounds, to keep our other parks operating," Vial says.
    Campers and anglers will get their first real look at the changes in store at Howard Prairie Resort on April 27, which signals the traditional start of Oregon's trout-fishing season.
    By then, county crews will have made about $15,000 worth of improvements to the store, restaurant and fish-cleaning station, and Community Justice crews will have trimmed trees and cleaned up downed limbs from the campground.
    Anglers who have grown used to mooring their boats in the same slip year after year might be surprised to be moved, because no list of those past agreements has been found. But Vial says visitors will experience more good than not so good.
    "Just because it's a change, don't expect it to be bad," Vial says. "Give us a chance. I think you'll be happy with what you see."
    Jim Johnston of Ashland looks on hopefully, but skeptically.
    Johnston ran the resort for its first 47 years, retiring in 2007 when he sold his contract to Joel and Holly LeGrande, whose default on that deal opened the door for the county's new arrangement.
    Johnston says he's glad the county is finally upgrading some of its facilities, which he says the county largely ignored when concessionaires ran the show. He's also in negotiations with the county to sell it some of the restaurant and store equipment returned to him when the county terminated its concessionaire agreement with the LeGrandes, who could not be reached for comment.
    Johnston believes guests will still come to the campground and marina, but they will be less likely to experience the family treatment the resort was known for under his guidance.
    "It's going to be like any other county or state park," Johnston says. "You register. You go in. That's it. It won't have the personality it had when we were there.
    "When they came through the doors, they knew it would be exactly the way it was when they left," he says. "Maybe that was good, maybe that wasn't. But they knew exactly what they were getting and were already satisfied before they even got here."
    The county parks program includes 18 developed parks and 12 undeveloped properties. It is funded largely through fees and recreational vehicle taxes distributed to counties for campground use. Larger venues, such as the county's RV park at Emigrant Lake, generate the most revenue, while places such as Takelma can't generate enough in entry fees to pay for cleaning the bathrooms, Vial says.
    Instead of breaking out unprofitable parks, the parks department tries to ensure that collectively they make money, and Howard Prairie Resort is expected to add significantly to the department's coffers.
    The resort in the past has generated close to $1 million a year in gross revenues, with the concessionaire paying a percentage of its income to the county based on a sliding scale.
    Last year, that formula would have generated about $60,000 had the LeGrandes not defaulted, Vial says.
    Under the new program, the county has budgeted $517,000 to operate its share of the resort, which includes a full-time ranger to patrol the resort and the six other county-owned campgrounds at Howard Prairie.
    The county expects to gross about $680,000 from the campground and marina, and garner 2 percent of the Mt. Ashland Association's gross receipts from the restaurant and store, which generated about $313,000 in 2011, according to unaudited numbers, Vial says.
    If all of those assumptions prove accurate, the resort would earn a profit this year of about $164,000, and most or all of that would be poured back into the resort on upgrades and equipment purchases, Vial says.
    Profits could come as early as next year, he said. If so, the extra money would help leverage grants for improvements at the resort, and some would go to running other less-profitable parks.
    "It's a sustainable business model," county parks Manager Steve Lambert says.
    This year's budget includes a capital improvements and reserves account of about $840,000, more than double that of the 2008-09 budget, Vial says.
    "Right now, we're building cash reserves," Vial says. "Five years ago, I didn't think that was possible."
    Lambert says the marriage between the county and the Mt. Ashland Association should generate positive feedback from visitors over time.
    "People can be nervous about change, but this is what we do," Lambert says. "We run boat ramps. We run campgrounds. We're good at that. We're not good at running restaurants or stores, so we found someone else who's good at that.
    "There will be some naysayers," Lambert says. "But by the end of the year, they'll see we meant what we said."
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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