Resort at Clinton Reservoir near Lawrence could help keep tourism dollars in Kansas

Patches of prairie meet ridges of dense woodlands of hickory, oaks and walnuts at Clinton State Park, the trees often rising from steep, rock-strewn hillsides that fall into the reservoir. The area a tad west of Lawrence has a bit of Ozarks flavor.

The state is now seeking proposals from developers to build a large resort and convention center in the park to compete with the Ozarks for tourism dollars.

“I think there’s a market for it, some real opportunities,” said Steve Kelly, Kansas Department of Commerce deputy secretary. “I think it could attract people to this region and retain some (area) people who have been leaving to go to places like Lake of the Ozarks or maybe Big Cedar Lodge down by Branson for business meetings or retreats.”

Robin Jennison, head of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, also thinks Clinton is the place, and that the time is now, for a resort.

“A lot of things are coming together, and the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) is very willing to work with us,” Jennison said. “The city of Lawrence is getting behind it, as are some in the Legislature.”

Jennison said a feasibility study, completed in the spring by a resort consulting company at the request of the state, thought the park could support a resort with about 175 rooms, two restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, a pool-side bar and grill, spa, fitness center and 15,000 square feet of meeting space.

“I think something’s going to happen, I really do,” Jennison said.

Within the past few weeks, Jennison said, developers have toured the state park. He’s expecting five or six to submit proposals later this month.

Kansas’ only resort on a federal reservoir, Acorns Resort on Milford Reservoir, opened in 2007. The idea of a resort at Clinton has been around much longer.

Kelly Ryan of the Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City district office said some of the earliest management plans for the lake – which was built in about 1980 – mentioned a possible resort in Clinton State Park. Kelly said talk of a resort on a Kansas reservoir popped up several times in the 1990s, including in some feasibility studies.

Decades of interest

A feasibility study in 1997 showed Clinton was probably the prime candidate for a lodge and that the demand was probably there to make it succeed.

“The main problem back then was the logistics of utilities,” said Jennison, a proponent of a resort during his 1991-2000 tenure in the Kansas Legislature. “It just would have cost too much to bring water and electricity out from Lawrence at that time, but that’s changed. Lawrence has grown almost all the way to the dam at Clinton.”

Kelly and Jennison said the state park’s close proximity to Lawrence and the Kansas City area could work in favor of a resort. Jennison pointed out that events at the University of Kansas could fill many of the rooms, especially during fall and winter, which are often hard times on resorts that rely on outdoor activities to draw guests.

Kelly likes the closeness of the Kansas City area, especially Johnson County and its many large businesses.

“Rather than drive two or three hours (to an Ozarks resort), Clinton is only about 45 minutes away from anywhere in the Kansas City metro area,” he said. “I-70 is literally only minutes away, and Highway 10 comes right to the lake. The Kansas City airport is close and easy for people flying in, which isn’t the case in the Ozarks.”

A resort in a state park also could draw families who want to enjoy time in the outdoors, Jennison said.

“Another reason we need (a resort) is so people can have an extended stay in one of our state parks without having to have a camper or be willing to tent-camp,” he said. “This would make sense for those kinds of people.”

And he contends there are plenty who love to spend their days outdoors but prefer their nights indoors with electricity and running water. The department has about 115 cabins scattered around the state at state parks and some smaller state fishing lakes. Some of those cabins have about 90 percent occupancy rate in the spring and summer.

With a resort at Clinton, visitors could also have a fine meal in the evenings and spend hot afternoons at a nearby movie or museum in Lawrence or Kansas City.

How many rooms?

Clinton already has quite a bit to offer those looking for quality time outdoors.

The lake is ringed with more than 20 miles of trails, some of which have pulled mountain bikers from several states. The mixture of prairie and woodlands can make for good birding, and the lake can offer good fishing and has what Jennison rates as one of the best marinas in the state.

Clinton Reservoir’s 7,000 surface acres pale, though, in comparison to the 50,000-plus acres of water at Lake of the Ozarks and other Ozarks lakes.

Ideally, Jennison would like to see a resort include tennis courts and, maybe, a whitewater facility.

“If people watched the Olympics, that’s what we’re talking about,” he said. “I think we can build a first-class (whitewater) facility and people would come a long ways for it.”

Dave Mashburn of LodgeWell, a Johnson County-based resort development and management company, was involved with the earlier studies and said he plans to file a proposal to build a resort at Clinton. He, too, believes it would need to be a combination outdoors resort and conference center to have a chance to work.

“It would absolutely have to have some elements that make it unique; otherwise, you’re just competing with every other hotel and conference center,” Mashburn said, “and there are already a plethora of those.”

Mashburn said there also seems to be growing interest in lake-based lodge/convention centers through the region. He’s been in discussions with a state park at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake for a possible resort. Another facility may be going up at Arkansas’ Lake Dardanelle.

Some are concerned that a large resort is more than the area could support.

“Clinton Lake needs something, but what I’ve heard, 175 rooms, I personally think is just too big,” said Nancy Longhurst, general manager of three high-end hotels in Lawrence, including the historic Eldridge Hotel downtown and the newer the Oread near KU’s campus.

“This community can’t support that large of a project. That’s my opinion, and I live and breathe it every day. I’m all about (local) growth, but this project’s too big.”

For comparison, Longhurst said the three businesses she manages total about 150 rooms. The Holiday Inn Lawrence, the town’s largest facility, has about 192 rooms.

Greg Williams, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president, said he’s “cautiously optimistic it might be a project that comes to fruition.”

The Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau didn’t return calls for comment or to provide a total of the number of rooms already available in the Lawrence area.

The next step

Jennison said the details of the proposed project are far from set in stone, and the state is waiting to hear proposals from developers.

As well as three sites on the northern shore suggested by Wildlife and Parks, developers could propose building a resort on another portion of Clinton State Park. Jennison hopes a state committee can begin studying bids soon after the Wednesday deadline, looking at costs and assorted feasibilities of the proposals.

Finding a project that can fit within the area’s water and sewage capacity is his biggest concern.

Linda Gronquist of the Kansas Department of Administration said the state hopes to award the project to a developer this fall. She said no beginning or completion dates have been formally discussed.

Ryan said the Corps of Engineers will need more details before it can approve a resort being built on federal land. The federal government built the lake and owns the land around it; it leases some of the land to the state to use as a park.

The project will not be allowed to jeopardize the environment or the lake’s main purposes of providing flood control and recreation, he said. If trees are cut down or wildlife habitat is affected, some mitigation may be required.

Still, he’s been to preliminary meetings concerning a possible resort and thinks the federal agency could work with the state and a resort developer.

Ryan said the current 25-year contract with the state park could be extended to 50 years if a solid plan is presented. The Kansas City district office allowed the building of a resort on Lake Rathbun in Iowa.

Jennison said the developer would pay construction costs and that the state would not own or operate the facility. He said it’s possible a management firm would lease the land from the state park and possibly pay additional money based on the resort’s income. Such funds could be important to state parks because of recent budget cuts.

Kelly, of the Department of Commerce, said a resort could add jobs to the Lawrence area plus bring money into the Kansas economy and provide more to the state in the form of taxes.

“It’s also about retaining money in the state,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are traveling from this area (to other resorts), and it would be great if we could keep them in this area.”

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