What’s next for Zephyr?
Splash Staff Writer
For the owner churches of Zephyr Lodge, it was time to "fish or cut bait."
That was the message sent last fall to the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ congregations scattered all over the northwest that together hold the responsibility for owning and operating the historic facility located along a stretch of shoreline of southeast Liberty Lake.
The Zephyr board's chairman, Liberty Lake resident John Loucks, used the fishing expression when asking the churches to make a tough decision. They could either invest heavily into restoring the facility, or they could sell the entire property.
Fourteen churches wrote back. All of them wanted and wished for a way to hold onto the facility. All of them voted to sell.
Loucks said the lack of resources, an aging church population and a decline in camp attendance all factored into the decision. The lodge itself is 111 years old this year, Liberty Lake's oldest building by a longshot. Add to that 53 acres of hiking trails and natural amenities, and Loucks said he understands the responsibility inherent in passing ownership of such a property.
"We're open to what develops," he said. "I'm a historian, and I love nature. It's by far the most historic building in Liberty Lake, and it would be a shame to take it down. I think we have in our country too often torn buildings down and replaced them with buildings that weren't nearly as great as the old buildings. I've traveled in Europe enough to appreciate what they do. It's fun to visit a house that's 100 years old or stay at a bed and breakfast that dates back to 1500. That's wonderful, and I'd like to have this building maintained because I think it's a historical building. It needs some fixing up, but it could flourish."
Even as the churches voted to sell the property, each came back with a caveat of how the funds would be used. This was finalized at a congregational meeting this spring, when a foundation was formed to use interest from the sale of the property in a way that would continue the spirit of what Zephyr meant to the church for decades as a camp destination and spiritual retreat center. Specifically, the funding will be used to send children to camps and provide scholarship funding for adults in the church who desire further education or seminary.
"You figure your interest on several million dollars," Loucks said. "We can provide a lot of money for a lot of kids to go to camp and for a lot of people to get further education."
Not that Loucks is intimating an asking price. He said the land was recently appraised for $1.3 million, but none of the many structures on the site, including the historic lodge, were part of that valuation. At its July 27 meeting, the Zephyr board appointed a committee to go to work establishing a "working asking price" for the entire property, Loucks said.
Interest in the property is beginning to increase, Loucks said.
"Maybe I'm being way too optimistic, but I wouldn't be surprised if we get some kind of offer at some point in the next month," he said. "I do know there are some people who are working hard at looking at the land."
As interest in the property has increased, Loucks emphasized that those wanting to check out the property must make an appointment. Lodge Manager Darcie Jernberg is handling those inquiries at 255-6122.
Protecting the heritage
Among those Loucks said are hard at work exploring the possibilities for the property are a pair of Liberty Lake women, friends Michelle German and Penny Humphries. The women are keeping the specifics of their plans under wraps for now in hopes of securing an agreement with the Zephyr board that would allow them time to finalize the financing of the plan - but focal to the plan is preserving the rich history of the property.
"I love historic antiques, especially old buildings - love them," Humphries said. "To be able to restore Zephyr back to her original state is a dream, a passion that both of us have."
Humphries was the PTSA president at Liberty Lake Elementary School this past year, while German served in the same role at Greenacres Middle School. They said their passion for organizing others and raising thousands of dollars would come in handy if transferred to Zephyr.
"I think it would be a community coming together to help save Zephyr," Humphries said. "I think investors would be involved. That's kind of where we would have to go. … Our ultimate goal is to save Zephyr."
In order to build this consensus, German said they are asking the Zephyr board for a purchase price and options contract that would give them until the end of the year to raise funds and build their case as the best suitor for the property.
The women have established an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, forthose interested in contacting them.
German said the community's interest is at stake not only because the facility and land would have the opportunity for public access and usage, but because the property could be a real investment for Liberty Lake in attracting tourists.
"There can be a mutual benefit for the community and Zephyr," German said. "The way our plan would work is not just the community benefitting Zephyr, but Zephyr benefitting our community. Zephyr has the potential of giving Liberty Lake attention."
German and Humphries openly worry about alternative buyers such as a real estate developer or even Spokane County, which has also been looking at the property as a bridge between land it owns at Liberty Lake Regional Park and MacKenzie Reserve. Warning of "another racetrack situation," German cautioned that public ownership would likely not be a winning outlet for rehabilitating the historic structures on the property.
"It does have asbestos in the basement; we've confirmed there's lead paint," she said. "There's a lot that needs to be done, and the county doesn't have that kind of money, I'm guessing."
Spokane County's interest
Doug Chase, Spokane County's director of parks, recreation and golf, does not deny the property is worth investigating.
"I think we're officially looking at it - that's the best description I have," he said. "… We are doing some homework and investigating it as an opportunity."
The cost and liability of old buildings is "part of what we're looking into," Chase said, but whether the buildings make sense to potential county ownership is currently an exercise in "hypotheticals."
He said he didn't know that the property would be a good fit for the Conservation Futures program, adding that there are various funding sources including general obligation bonds that could be considered if the county even decided to pursue purchase of the property.
"I don't know how to make this sound exciting," Chase said. "We're certainly enjoying the opportunity to take a look and have appreciated working with John and the Zephyr Lodge folks."
Like they have been for decades, middle and high school students are attending church camp at Zephyr Lodge as July folds into August. Between the main lodge, the dorm-style "Lakeview Lodge," and various cabins, Jernberg said as many as 130 people can stay overnight.
Not that camping is the only thing happening at Zephyr these days. Jernberg, her husband Gabe and their three children have been busy managing the property for the church, hosting everything from camps to meetings to weddings. In between, they are cleaning the property and marketing it for the same use it has enjoyed since 1946 - as a camp and retreat center.
"In this process, we're following Plan A and Plan B," Loucks said. "Plan A is to sell the property, and Plan B is to keep it going and run it so we can pay the bills."