Resort pays off

Jackson County earned close to a quarter-million dollars in its first season of running Howard Prairie Resort despite a bumpy start, a smoky midsummer that kept campers away and push-back from longtime visitors unhappy with changes there.

The resort grossed close to $670,000 during the April through October season, which coincides with the trout-fishing season at Howard Prairie Lake east of Ashland, according to the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department.

Minus expenses that included investments amortized over the next 15 years, the county netted $238,517 in the resort business, which it took on after the previous concessionaire failed.

In past years, the county's net profit for owning but not operating the resort was $190,356, according to county records.

That included about $60,000 in payments from the concessionaire based on its gross receipts, as well as state RV licensing fees and Oregon State Marine Board payments for visitor use.

Running the show at Howard Prairie proved more profitable.

"We're happy with how we did, but it's actually a little less than we expected," says John Vial, the county's roads and parks director.

"But it's almost a $50,000 increase over recent years," Vial says. "We'll take that."

Not everyone is taking what the county's selling there.

The transformation from a private concessionaire to a county park has drawn critics such as Jack Malone, a Eureka, Calif., man who ventured to the resort annually for more than 20 years.

The private concessionaires — first the Johnston family and, most recently, Joel and Holly LeGrande — created a much friendlier atmosphere and were more camper-centric than the county, Malone says.

Blown-down timber that used to be available for firewood instead was used to mark off camping spots, making them difficult to access, he says. The for-sale firewood was overpriced, and even the restaurant food wasn't up to snuff, Malone says.

And county camp hosts were extremely slow to enforce the 9 p.m. no-noise curfew when nearby campers continued rowdy behavior well into the night, Malone claims.

"Everything about it changed totally," Malone says. "It was the camping trip from hell.

"You wouldn't think a place like that would change," he says. "To me, it's greed. It's trying to make that almighty dollar. I'll never go there again."

Vial says the county accrued fewer complaints this past camping season than in previous years, when many disliked what they thought was favoritism given to long-term campers who always got the best lakeside spots.

"We constantly got complaints over why all the lakefront sites were booked up by the same people all summer long," Vial says. "There's another side to the story, and it's real. That's the flip-side to it."

The resort land is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which has a camping limit of 14 consecutive days. That limit has been ignored for decades, but the bureau gave the LeGrandes five years to phase that out when they took over in 2007.

Now the county will phase it out in 2018, Vial says. Those long-term campers with locked-in sites were sent a letter this year detailing the upcoming changes, and those who don't renew their booking will lose access to that site in future years, Vial says.

Those locking up campsites for more than 14 days paid the county $43,532 of the $239,711 in camping fees collected this season, Vial says. Enforcing the rule will reduce camping revenues — such as when midweek dates at those coveted sites don't get filled, he says.

The county's expenses for taking over and running the resort totaled $431,438, county records show.

Of that, $411,438 was for general operations, including about $31,000 for the repair of a leaky underground storage tank.

The remaining $19,758 of expenses went toward the first of 15 years of amortized payments to the county's parks reserve fund, which was used to fund initial start-up costs for the county takeover of the resort's operations.

The Johnstons, who ran the resort the first 47 years it was open, turned over the concessionaire rights to the LeGrandes, who defaulted last winter.

The county stepped in to ensure the resort would be operated this year, securing an agreement with the Mount Ashland Association to run the restaurant and store while the county handled the marina and campground.

They opened just in time for the late-April start of fishing at Howard Prairie, but they were initially short on campers either wary of the county's operation or misled by Internet rumors that the resort was shuttered.

Also, intense smoke from mid-August wildfires cut campsite use by well over 50 percent for a two-week period, Vial says.

"We've had some bumps there, but overall we're pleased," Vial says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or

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