Investors share plans for lake development

Staff reporter

It was love at first sight for Jim and Debra Whitfill.

The first time they saw the view from the front windows of the Marion Toland residence at Marion County Lake, they knew this was the house and the community for them.

It all began when Jim and Debra rode across country on their bicycles to celebrate Debra's 50th birthday. The couple was living in Phoenix, Ariz., at the time and decided to take a road trip to Boston via their bicycles.

During a layover in Abilene, they became enchanted with the city. They returned the following year and bought a building.

The couple knew they always wanted lakefront property, and they first looked at Marion Reservoir the spring of 2006.

They found their way to Marion County Lake, and saw the "For Sale By Owner" sign at 31 Lakeshore Drive.

"We looked out the front window of the house (which had a view of the lake) and we both said 'sold'," Debra said. "We fell in love with the community and the lake."

"We had been looking for lakefront property," Jim said.

The couple from Arizona used to be in the business of renting paddle boats and hydrobikes (bicycle-powered catamaran). And when they moved to the county lake, they brought five of the people-powered water craft with them.

So how did this couple from the Grand Canyon state end up being prospective developers at Marion County Lake?

The idea of owning and operating businesses at the county lake was something that had been in the back of the Whitfills' minds since they purchased their property in 2006 and moved to the lake to live full-time in 2007.

Jim said he had a conversation with Brad Seacat of Seacat Do-it-Best Hardware of Marion. Discussions then followed regarding constructing cabins at the lake.

"The café idea came up when we had conversations with (Marion County Commissioner Dan Holub) . . .," Jim said.

A concession stand was being discussed by the commission at that time.

"I thought since the lake hall gets used very little, we could put in a dutch door and sell hot dogs," Jim said.

The Whitfills had observed that when the lake hall was being used, typically the kitchen was not utilized. Basically the sink was used for washing and the area for seating.

"I'm a 'number cruncher'," Jim continued. "It seemed to me to be a great opportunity for us and the county."

So, why have a café in the lake hall and not purchase an existing restaurant building?

The Whitfills did try to purchase the former Kingfisher's Steakhouse and Lounge. A contract was drawn in late 2006, but the couple withdrew their offer because the sale and exchange of another property that was contingent on them purchasing the restaurant did not come through in time.

In November of 2006, an auction was held at the restaurant where the Whitfills did participate in bidding on the property but the sellers were requiring a higher minimum sale price.

Just a few weeks ago, another offer was made by the Whitfills on the restaurant which was rejected by the sellers.

They consider the Kingfisher deal to be separate from what they're wanting to do at the lake.

As for buildings in Marion, it simply is not a part of their plans because they also want to own and operate cabin and water craft rentals.

If their café is centrally located in the lake hall building, the Whitfills and their employees can monitor the cabins and paddle boat rentals while serving breakfast and lunch.

The county would receive three percent of all gross revenue from the café, cabins, and boat rentals.

The café

For Jim, he doesn't understand what the fuss is about regarding the café.

"We're taking a building that is under-utilized, making improvements on it, and want to provide a community gathering place," he said.

So what about the commercial kitchen equipment and furniture?

"We've designed the area so our equipment and inventory can be locked up while that part of the hall is being used," Jim said.

A diagram indicated that a sink, refrigerator, and microwave would remain available for public use. A screen of some sort, maybe lattice, would be placed approximately halfway across the north half. The sliding accordion doors that currently separate the two halves of the hall would remain the same, which can be opened for those who rent the south and north halves of the hall.

"The only thing that will be different is that people will rent the north half from us," Jim said.

Being a "number cruncher," Jim explained that the two sides of the hall are available for two rental periods — day and night. He figured the two halls have the potential of being rented 1,460 times during any year.

"The hall was rented for 82 rental periods," Jim said, which means it's used six percent of the time.

In response to a comment that was made at a previous commission meeting regarding the hall not costing the county anything while it's empty, Jim said the county actually is losing money since it is not being utilized but the county continues to maintain it.

"We want people in our community to have a place to have a cup of coffee and breakfast," Debra said.

So, what will happen when Kingfisher's sells?

"It won't affect our business," Jim said.

When the discussion began more than five months ago, the Whitfills made it clear to lake superintendent Steve Hudson that they did not want to make his job more difficult.

"I told Steve that under no uncertain terms we would compete with his business," Jim said.

Hudson is allowed to have a bait and tackle shop with the profits being retained by him. He also sells some food and drink items, and some groceries and camping supplies.

Jim said he approached Hudson and asked him if he wanted Jim and Debra to go through Hudson or the commission, regarding the development project.

"We gave Steve the opportunity to be involved or to stop it," Jim said.

During Monday afternoon's meeting, it became public knowledge that there may be another unexpected road block when it was noted that a state statute may limit the county and the Whitfills to only a one-year lease on the lake hall café.

So what would happen if the Whitfills couldn't do the café at the lake hall?

"Not doing the café would change things," Jim said. "We can look at doing a one-year contract but want an option to do it longer."

In the end, it could be a deal-breaker.

Being located at the lake hall would provide a central location for customers to rent cabins and paddle boats.

"We have never planned for people to go to the lake office for the rentals," Jim said. The couple also would is willing to sell goods for Hudson, giving him the profits as if they were sold at the lake office.

"We don't want to cut out Steve's business but we don't want someone else opening another concession at the lake," Jim said.

So what if the café business becomes wildly successful and the couple decide to expand.

"We not interested, at this point, in expanding the café," Jim said.

Debra said they are patterning the café after a bagel shop, with tables and chairs, and a simple menu. The business is more for gathering and socializing than being a full-service restaurant.

An occasional Friday and Saturday evening meal may be made available, as well as a catering business.

The Whitfills see a need for providing catering services to those who use the lake hall because there are times when a group may gather but don't want to have to worry about preparing food or having a potluck.

No stranger to the kitchen, Jim had been involved with the restaurant business for 15 years — working in fast food, deli, Mexican cuisine, and other settings. At one time, he was responsible for 13 restaurants which were directly under his supervision.

With the plans for the café, the couple is willing to insulate the entire north half of the lake hall even though they will only use a portion of it, and update the interior to make the café more inviting. At a previous county commission meeting, the commission agreed to insulate the south half of the hall at the same time.

The Whitfills also have agreed to pay $50 per day, every day, for use of the north half of the hall. A clause in the agreement would allow the Whitfills to sub-lease the north half and keep the proceeds.

Separate meters will be installed, at the Whitfills' expense, so they will be responsible for water, sewer, and electrical usage at the café.

"If the whole building is insulated, it would be available for rent all year round," Jim said. "If we weren't doing this, it wouldn't be available for Christmas parties and other wintertime events."

In all, they plan to spend about $35,000 just for the interior of the café and equipment.

The cabins

In the beginning, the Whitfills and the county commission wanted to locate the cabins by the heated dock. Unfortunately the county determined that a sewer lift station needed to accommodate five or six cabins was going to cost in excess of $30,000.

Even though the county had been contemplating locating public bathroom facilities by the heated dock, it was not prepared to install the new sewer equipment in time to accommodate the developers.

A second location in the trailer park was then determined to be the most logical place with sewer and water lines already available. A triangular-shaped piece of ground at the corner of Lakeshore and Office drives is the location being considered.

If all goes according to plan, the Whitfills plan to build five or six cabins, each with their own bathrooms. A bunkhouse also is a part of their plans with accommodations for larger groups including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

"We're responsible people so we're going to expect our cabin renters to be responsible," Jim said at a previous commission meeting in response to comments that having cabin rentals will attract people who will disturb the peace with parties and loud music.

The Whitfills will pay for the installation of sewer, water, and electricity to the cabins. Separate meters will be installed with monthly usage also being the couple's responsibility.

"We want this to be a benefit to the county, not an expense," Jim said.

The water craft

Prior to moving to Kansas, the Phoenix residents had planned to own and operate a business that would rent human-powered water craft. Jim became ill and the plans were nixed but the dream never died.

"We are not interested in renting jet skis or power boats," Debra said.

Kayaks, canoes, john boats, paddle boats, and hydrobikes are the types of rentals they want to provide.

The launching is proposed just north of the swimming beach area.

"We have a paddle boat that we use quite a bit here at the lake," Debra said. "Our experience has been to remain by the water's edge to view wildlife and scenery. Most people will want to stay along the edge instead of paddling to the middle of the lake."

What's next?

Negotiations are continuing between the county and the couple but with the newest obstacle of possible time constraints, a new wrinkle has been added.

The three percent cut to the county, based on the gross receipts from the three businesses, is an arbitrary number, Jim said, one that is suggested by the paddle boat industry and is commonly used in similar negotiations.

Originally, the Whitfills were hoping to have the contract signed and construction nearly completed by now. After all the lake season is about to begin.

"If this all goes through, we probably won't be able to do all three businesses for this season," Debra said. "We may have to do one at a time."

Jim knows he may have come on a little strong at a previous commission meeting when he wanted a commitment from the county.

"We have been at this for five months and I wanted to get people off of dead center," Jim said. And now with the possible lease limitations, he feels they are back to "square one."

"We want to get something going and we want to do it here," Jim said. "We own a building at Abilene and could get something going tomorrow but Marion is where we want to be."

The Whitfills are willing to talk with concerned citizens about the project. Call Jim and Debra at 382-2107.