Since work began in February to remodel the old hotel and refill the natural freshwater lake after which Mountain Lake resort is named, both the bookings and the water level have risen.
The Mary Moody Northen Endowment, owner of the resort atop Salt Pond Mountain in Giles County, has over the past year invested about $2.25 million into remodeling the rooms and cabins, constructing an outdoor adventure ropes course, opening a new restaurant and bar, converting an old laundry building into an outdoor outfitter shop and patching ancient sinkholes in the bottom of the namesake lake.
“It’s been a learning year for us,” said Betty Massey, director of the nonprofit Texas-based endowment. “We did some things that worked really well, and we did some things we’re probably not going to repeat. People are responding well to the changes.”
Much has changed at the resort over the past year. The 1930s-era stone hotel was renamed Mountain Lake Lodge and remodeled. The old hotel dining room was reconstituted as Harvest Restaurant, and an old lounge off the main lobby was converted to the Stony Creek Tavern, named for Giles County’s Big Stony and Little Stony creeks.
For the first time in years, the resort is open this winter, with guests staying in the main lodge and in the Blueberry Ridge cabins on the property. Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant was particularly popular and had a long waiting list, Massey said.
Staff changes have continued. Jeff Burrell, who replaced long-time general manager Buzz Scanland, decided over the summer to return to Colorado, Massey said. Heidi Stone, who worked in sales and marketing under Burrell, will take over as general manager in the new year.
Giles-born chef Cunningham West, who was hired to run Harvest Restaurant, has been replaced by Michael Rork, who made his name in Baltimore restaurants.
Massey said Rork is continuing to build relationships with local farmers and meat producers to develop a true farm-to-table dining experience on the mountain.
Wedding business has more than doubled since last year, Massey said. And overall occupancy rates are up from just over 30 percent when the lake went dry a few years ago. Current occupancy rates were not immediately available.
“We have a long way to go, but we’re on the way back,” Massey said. “The lake is going to be a game changer. It’s holding water, and it’s in better shape than it was a year ago. We’re looking forward to a usable lake next summer.”
When the lake dried up, much of the business did as well.
The lake level first dropped in 1999 but came back in 2003. In 2006, the water level dropped again. For three days in 2008, the lake dried up completely, leaving piles of rotting fish 100 feet below Newport Cottage. No living person had seen the lake disappear, although records from the 1700s describe a grassy meadow growing on at least part of the lake bed. It remained mostly empty from 2008 to 2012.
The drying up of the 50-acre lake was the most historically significant event in the resort’s history, but it and the worst economic recession since the 1930s damaged the business. In a short time, hotel occupancy dropped from about 60 percent to about 30 percent.
The endowment worked on a new strategic plan for the resort with help from the Urban Land Institute and has implemented many of the institute’s recommendations. Radford University engineering geologist Skip Watts, who has worked across the country, got interested in the lake. He knew from his previous work that there was a good chance of slowing the leaks enough to allow the lake to refill itself.
Meanwhile, his students and other teachers and researchers could use it as a living geology laboratory.
At the same time as the resort’s new business plan was being finalized, Watts and a team of researchers had come up with a proposal to patch the leaky bottom by mimicking the natural processes at work on the site since it formed 4,000 to 7,000 years ago.
The team identified four major depressions near Newport Cottage that contained what geologists call “piping holes,” that with prolonged drought over the past decade have drained the lake faster than the precipitation and surface streams that feed it could replace the water.
The fix involved filling in the four major depressions, first with chunks of larger rock, and then with materials that stepped down gradually in size to fine clay. With the fill set in place, Watts said at the time that he was “very, very confident” the lake would rise to full pond within a year or two.
The work was done last winter and the water level has doubled since March, according to data provided by Watts. By November the lake was 53 feet at its deepest place.
Watts said the levels dropped slightly in August, as expected given seasonal weather changes. But overall the levels are increasing steadily. The team will continue to monitor the lake levels with equipment purchased through a grant from the endowment, Watts said.
A second round of remodeling, funded in part by historic tax credits, is planned at the 1930s-era stone lodge, Massey said. And the New River Land Trust is helping the resort develop a conservation plan for its natural resources, including 25 miles of hiking and biking trails.