Lithia Springs Resort plans expansion

Lithia Springs Resort has been in business for the better part of two decades, but many Ashland residents still don't know it exists.

"We have a wine tasting every other Saturday," said resort co-owner Duane Smith, "and there's rarely a Saturday goes by that somebody from Ashland doesn't stop us and say, 'We didn't know you were back here.'"

All of that could change soon. The resort owners hope to begin work this fall on a multimillion-dollar plan to expand the lot, located off Highway 99 just north of Ashland. The plan includes nearly doubling the amount of rooms, and creating a new intersection. There is also a plan to erect a barn-style wine sampling center in front of the property — complete with tastes from up to two dozen wineries across the state.

"We want it to be a real icon," Smith said.

The resort opened its doors in 1991. Smith remembers the entire property as a mess of blackberries and thistles when he initially purchased it. Now it is an 8.5-acre, high-scale hotspot for tourists from around the world. The resort sits atop a rich mineral water deposit, which provides it with the Lithia spring water that gave the resort its name.

Expansion has been on the minds of Smith and fellow co-owners John and Kathy Chmelir for a while. But it took them years to acquire the final piece of land necessary to make it happen. Mr. C's Convenience Store and the former site of El Tapatio Mexican restaurant sat on that small patch of land, standing between the highway and resort, effectively blocking it from sight.

"We hadn't been very visible behind the old buildings," Smith said.

They bought the rights to that land five years ago, but still had to wait for El Tapatio to relocate down the road. That happened in December, and now that the buildings have been demolished and the ground leveled, new construction projects can get underway.

The resort was granted a permit to add cottages in May, and approval for the wine barn is pending. With the permit secured and the old buildings demolished, Lithia Springs' new construction projects will soon be underway.

"We expect now to be a little more visible," Smith said.

The full plan calls for adding 12 cottage-style rooms to the resort's current 16. At the same time, the owners will foot a $500,000 bill to create a four-way intersection where the highway meets W. Jackson Road. That new intersection will increase traffic flow near the resort's entrance, and make it more accessible to travelers coming off of Interstate 5 at exit 19.

"In October we'll begin," Smith said. "The cottages could be done by the spring."

Smith said he has been pleasantly surprised with the pace of business this summer. Expecting the recession to keep profits low, and fearing what impact that may have on expansion plans, he instead finds himself busier than ever.

"Things are looking good," he said. "We plan to move ahead this fall, but it's all very much wait and see."

As for the wine barn, that may be a full year away. But along with a small vineyard of their own out front, the owners of Lithia Springs Resort expect it to be a town staple from the moment it is installed.

"It will be the gateway to Ashland," Smith said.

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