County gives nod to caf at county lake hall

Cabins, paddle boat rentals also approved

Staff reporter

Can the county lease public building space for a private business?

Marion County Commission did just that Feb. 19 when it gave verbal approval to Jim and Debra Whitfill of Marion to use the north half of the county's lake hall for a cafe. The length of the lease has not been determined.

Commissioner Dan Holub had made it known at previous commission meetings that he wanted to see the county lake developed with cabins and recreational activities for residents and visitors, and the other two commissioners concurred.

Among the discussion items that developed at past meetings was the possibility of a portion of the public lake hall building being used as a privately-owned café.

Despite concerns expressed by county lake superintendent Steve Hudson and lake residents, the commission determined that receiving $50 per day rent on the building, constructed with tax dollars, was better than having the entire building available for public use and only receiving $4,000 per year in revenue.

Hudson had reported at a previous meeting that there are county residents who reserve the lake hall every year for events. Others reserve one or both sides of the hall for family and class reunions on a regular basis every few years and did not think it was fair to ask them to go elsewhere.

The hall has been used for wedding receptions, meetings, craft shows, and benefit dinners.

The lake hall has 20 reservations thus far for 2008.

"You've got 20 days out of 365 where the building is used and the rest of the time it's not," commissioner Randy Dallke said.

A total of $4,100 was collected in 2007 from the use of the lake hall which paled in comparison with $18,000 the county could collect from the Whitfills.

"If this flies, there's a possibility that the county may build another structure for meetings and gatherings," Dallke said.

"We need to maintain a public building with no overhead," Hudson said.

Research indicated that public funds were used in 1973 to build the 120-x-40-foot lake hall for $33,199. With today's costs of concrete and steel, the same size shell building and concrete could cost the county approximately $100,000. Air conditioning, heating, fixtures, etc. would be an additional cost.

The Whitfills also were given verbal permission to construct five to six cabins near the trailer park and provide recreational watercraft for a fee.

During the discussion at the Feb. 19 meeting, Whitfill asked the commission to consider a clause in a yet-to-be-negotiated contract to allow him to sub-lease his half of the lake hall as he sees fit. He continued that if this agreement is approved by all parties, Whitfill would be willing to honor bookings of the entire hall to this point but none in the future.

A commercial kitchen would be installed in the rented portion of the building at the Whitfills' expense with the café offering breakfast and lunch menus. The café would offer some items that currently are being sold by Hudson at the lake office.

When Hudson was hired as lake superintendent, the commission agreed to allow Hudson to operate a commercial bait shop to subsidize his income. Previous lake superintendent Dale Snelling also had the same condition.

Along with bait and tackle, Hudson also offers snacks, sandwiches, canned and bottled foods, and camping supplies.

The Whitfills were bidders on the Kingfisher Steakhouse and Lounge building when an auction was held several months ago. Unfortunately the bidding for the closed restaurant did not reach the required minimum bid and no sale occurred.

"I would have loved to acquired Kingfisher's but it hasn't worked out," Whitfill said. He continued that he wanted the county to make money and wants to create a community environment at the lake where people can gather and visit.

"If I had the money and opportunity, I would do this at Marion Reservoir," he said.

It was determined to charge the Whitfills $50 per day to cover utility costs. Whitfill said he also would be willing to pay for insulation in the building and separate utility meters.

He continued that he owned commercial property at Abilene and if this arrangement didn't work out to his liking, he would no longer pursue the development at the lake.

"We're at a crossroads," Whitfill said. "I need a commitment from the commission today (Feb. 19) . . . If the county doesn't want to do this, I'll pack up my bags and go to Abilene but I'd rather be here."

Jim Whitfill said he has had experience with rentals and concessions, and had been in the food business for 15 years.

There was some opposition to cabins being built in the trailer park.

Verlan Biggs and Bill English expressed their concerns about the cabins being located near their trailer houses.

"Not in my back yard" was the common sentiment from the two men. They stated they owned trailers in the park because it was a peaceful setting. They were concerned that with the cabins for rent, their peace may be disturbed.

They also were concerned about cabin renters having boats and other vehicles that could cause congestion in the trailer park.

County economic development director Teresa Huffman said she and her grandchildren spend summer vacations staying at cabins and renting watercraft. In her times of doing so, she hasn't observed cabin-dwellers also having boats.

Whitfill said he intended to rent his investment to responsible people and did not condone a party environment.

"It will bring more people to the lake to enjoy recreation," Whitfill said. He continued that state parks allow restaurants and cabins on their properties.

Other concerns were expressed by lake residents Gordon Pendergraft and Dan Crumrine regarding people-powered watercraft on the lake, which the Whitfills want to rent.

Crumrine said he would like to see more lake patrolling with the different types of watercraft.

Hudson reminded the commission that it had decided there would be no more docks installed. Dallke said that ruling was for private docks and this was commercial.

A beach to dock the paddle boat rentals could be located by the swimming area, Hudson said, which would eliminate the need for a dock.

A survey will be required for the location of the five cabins. The Whitfills would be required to pay personal property taxes on the cabins and restaurant fixtures and furnishings.

Huffman was to assist the Whitfills in finalizing the lease agreement. The lease for the land for the cabins is for 25 years.

History of the lake hall

The Marion County Lake Hall was built in 1973 for $33,199 by Max Carr, with tax dollars.

At that time, federal revenue sharing funds were given to county governments to benefit taxpayers.

From Jan. 1 through June 30, 1973, a total of $113,147 in federal funds were given to the county to be used for county expenditures.

Examples of those expenses during that time period included 24 percent for public transportation and 53 percent for repairs and maintenance of the courthouse.

Twenty-three percent of the funds was to be used for recreation and cultural activities. The Marion County Commission at that time earmarked the $30,000 for a new lake hall and equipment.

According to historical records, the metal building replaced a 1940 building that was left behind by the federal work program, CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), to be used by county residents and lake visitors.

Minutes from a Marion County Lake board meeting on Jan. 18, 1973, reported that the county commission approved the removal of the present lake hall and plans for a new building for public use.

Since that time, the lake hall has been one of the few and at the present time the only public building of its size available in the county.