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60-Foot Lava Lamp Plan Is Just Plain Groovy

Residents of a rural Washington town hope a monument to glowing, undulating ooze would boost the economy.

November 17, 2002|Linda Ashton | Associated Press Writer

SOAP LAKE, Wash. — Brent Blake and John Glassco want to light the way to this little town in central Washington's coulee country with the world's largest Lava lamp -- a 60-foot monument to glowing, undulating ooze.

But don't go pulling out the Iron Butterfly eight-tracks and love beads just yet -- this isn't a flashback to the 1960s.

"There's more to it than a Lava lamp. It's an economic development issue," said Blake, a ponytailed architect and designer who divides his time between Soap Lake and Gig Harbor on Puget Sound.

The director of the Grant County Economic Development Council, Terry Brewer, agrees.

"I think he's right on point there," Brewer said.

Soap Lake, population 1,275, is something of a rarity east of the Cascade Range, a rural town without a grain elevator or a railroad spur.

It exists as a sort of a faded "Wellville" with a small, mineral-rich lake that once attracted hordes of health-conscious travelers intent on taking the foamy, healing waters and coating themselves with mud.

But the lake -- about 150 miles east of Seattle and 110 miles west of Spokane -- isn't the draw it was a generation or two ago, Brewer said.

"Soap Lake has had a shriveling economy for a number of years," he said. "We need someone or something to create the kind of activity or interest to get the little economic engine spinning again."

Blake, 60, and friend Glassco, 54, an environmental services consultant who lives here, came up with the idea on a whim during a late-night chat, and both insist they never owned Lava lamps in their youth.

The design and the engineering are fluid right now, with lots of sketches in a book and specs that are uncertain.

As proposed, the lamp would be 60 feet tall, with a diameter of 18 feet.

The top cap would have a searchlight that would shine vertically for 50 miles. A catwalk would surround the glass cylinder where it meets the base to form an observation platform.

Blake said he has no cost estimate, but he'd like to have it built in three years.

Blake has enlisted the help of the state Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development to try to make his Lava lamp vision real.

George Sharp, a tourism development account manager for the development office, is there to help Blake explore the feasibility of and financing options for the project, along with brainstorming ways to have it make money.

"We don't want it to be just like the largest ball of twine -- where you come look and you're done," Sharp said.

Times are tough for businesses here. People on their way to Grand Coulee Dam or Sun Lakes State Park don't see much reason for stopping.

It's not for lack of trying. An intimate 144-seat theater is under construction on Main Street for the local Masquers troupe and other visiting performers. There's a Sun Lakes Photography Festival.

Soap Lake took a shot at the Wild West theme years ago, but the North Cascades town of Winthrop did it better. Two restaurants are boarded up and for sale.

The lake itself and the high-desert sunshine remain the primary attractions, from the start of fishing season in the spring through hunting season in the fall.

Both hotels, the rosy Inn at Soap Lake and the rustic Notaras Lodge, have guest rooms where visitors can choose between fresh water and lake water for their baths.

Barney and Gerry Ballor, en route to Tacoma from Bay City, Mich., stopped here briefly with their granddaughter's pug dog, Blackberry, after reading about Soap Lake in a brochure in their Moses Lake motel room.

"I'd like to come here in the summer and go swimming," Gerry Ballor said.

And both agreed they would probably stop to see the world's largest Lava lamp.

Sharp believes there are many ways to make a 60-foot-tall Lava lamp a destination, with changing interpretive exhibitions on everything from the geology of the area to natural healing techniques to the history of the Lava lamp itself.

"We'd rather have attention for something like this than no attention at all," Brewer said.

Ideally, Blake would like to see Soap Lake end up an eclectic, artsy little community.

"There's so much potential here. It's frustrating to walk down the street," Glassco said.

"It just makes you want to make something happen," Blake added.

The city has given its blessing. "You have really started a wake-up call here and created interest in the community with this idea," Mayor Ken Lee wrote in a letter of support.

Even Chicago-based Haggerty Enterprises, which owns the rights to the Lava brand motion lamp, seems to think it's a groovy plan.

"We would definitely work with them in any way we could to maximize this," Vanessa Patrick said.

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