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Hard knocks at a resort's door

The Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, a blue-collar playground built by a plumbers union half a century ago so that its members could afford to vacation like the 'rich kids,' is set to close Tuesday.

November 08, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

KELSEYVILLE, CALIF. — The line cooks had matching stickers pasted to their chef's jackets one Saturday night in mid-October, brave words for a bleak reality: "We are the future of Konocti."

Sad-eyed housekeepers clutched instructions on how to apply for unemployment benefits and compared notes in soft Spanish about job prospects here in hard-knock Lake County: "Muy dificil."

But leave it to the country music singer to get to the painful heart of the matter during what he called the possible "last concert ever" at Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa -- tony Northern California's rare blue-collar playground, which is set to close Tuesday.

"You guys are proof that no matter where you are, you can find some two-fisted, beer-drinking, biscuit-eating rednecks!" shouted Jay DeMarcus, bass player for Rascal Flatts, as the Konocti crowd roared in response. "What we should do is pack all these people up, put them on the bus and take them back to Nashville with us."

They might be better off there. Remote, rural and accessible only by two-lane highway, Lake County has an unemployment rate of almost 15% -- even before its only full-service hotel, also among the region's largest private employers, shuts down.

The United Assn. of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Journeymen Local 38 built Konocti half a century ago so its members could afford to vacation just like the "rich kids," said Larry Mazzola Sr., whose father was raised in a Brooklyn orphanage and dreamed up the 90-acre complex here on the shores of Clear Lake.

The union's members stay for half price, and their children attend summer camp at no cost. Konocti hosts proms and bass-fishing contests. Its concerts and miniature golf course offer much-needed diversion in a county with two movie theaters and a single bowling alley.

During high season, Konocti employs more than 600 people to staff its 5,500-seat amphitheater, 1,100-seat showroom and 262 hotel rooms.

On concert weekends, the overflow fills mom-and-pop motels scattered around what is believed to be the oldest lake in North America.

By one estimate, 1,000 Lake County residents could be out of work if the plumbers don't find a buyer for the aging resort -- and soon. As of last week, several parties had expressed interest in the threadbare property, but no agreements had been signed.

Rob Gamble, a government consultant helping Konocti's workforce prepare for unemployment, said the region will be hurt by the resort's closing as much as Alameda County will be by the coming closure of California's last auto factory, which employs about 4,600.

Workers at the Nummi plant "are going to get all the attention," Gamble said. "But if you lose a job at Nummi, Silicon Valley is only five miles away. There's nothing five miles away from Konocti."

That, of course, depends on how you define "nothing."

Drive four or five miles along Soda Bay Road in either direction from Konocti's sloppy sprawl and you'll find evidence of the aging property's regional economic clout.

Northwest of Konocti is Edgewater Resort. Business is already down 15%, and owner Sandra West looks to the future with some trepidation. She hopes that, by specializing in family reunions, Edgewater will be inoculated against Konocti's closure.

"We have the cabins and the RV sites and tent-camping sites," West said hopefully. "The kids want to pitch a tent, mom and dad want to bring an RV and the grandparents want to stay in a cabin."

About five miles south of Konocti is scrappy Kit's Corner, a few acres of asphalt off California 29 and the self-proclaimed "Center of Civilization." It's home to Creekside Lodge ("Rooms from $59"), Royal Automotive Services and Kit's Corner Store.

On concert nights, the rooms at Creekside fill, customers line up at the mini-mart and the 15 employees at Kit's Corner get paid. A week from now, all of that could change, said Tonya Marks, the mini-mart's worried clerk.

Konocti is "pretty much this whole area's source of entertainment," she said. Closure is "going to hurt the Lake County economy big-time. The only thing to do is go to casinos, and no one can afford that anymore."

The Lake County landscape is dominated by the 43,000-acre lake at its center and by Mt. Konocti, a long-dormant volcano, to the south. In recent years, vineyards have elbowed out walnut and pear orchards here in the self-proclaimed "Pear Capital of the World." The region has worked hard to secure some of the cash and cachet of Napa Valley, its well-heeled neighbor.

Tasting rooms punctuate the 100-mile lakefront. The renovated Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake -- with 17 boutique rooms -- would fit right in in flossy St. Helena. The Wine & Chocolate Festival is a February highlight.

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