Hard knocks at a resort's door

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.

But this still is Lake County, a twisty three-hour drive from San Francisco where the housing stock still has a hefty percentage of mobile homes -- a crumbling remnant of the mid-20th century. That's when labor leader Joe Mazzola pushed for Local 38 to buy 90 acres in the shadow of Mt. Konocti. At first, union members got free two-week vacations, and the resort was closed in winter.

But in 1990, the plumbers hired Greg Bennett, who envisioned a musical powerhouse on the shores of Clear Lake, the kind of venue that had to be open year round to make ends meet.

"September 1990 was our first show, Leon Russell," Bennett recounted. "He almost sold out his two shows. Next, the Guess Who a week later. They sold out both shows, and we were off and running."

Konocti Presents started out with 300 seats, a 150-seat restaurant and a meeting room cobbled together. It grew to 600 seats, and then 1,100. Then the plumbers turned a softball field into an outdoor amphitheater, with 3,000 and then 4,000 and then 5,500 tiered seats, each within 200 feet of the stage.

Through the years, Lynyrd Skynyrd has played the outdoor amphitheater more than any other act, and Eddie Money has reigned supreme in the indoor showroom.

OK, so Money thought it a little odd to belt out "Two Tickets to Paradise" in a theater where people ate dinner and "there were these pictures of these old guys on the walls, like my uncles, the plumbers union guys. It was so corny."

But they were good to him at Konocti, even naming a sandwich after him. "I haven't played there in a couple of years, unfortunately," he said. "I'm surprised I didn't get a show there this summer."

Truth be told, fewer acts have played here this year, Mazzola said, as Konocti struggled to stay afloat through the painful recession and the aftermath of a federal lawsuit.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor sued Mazzola and Local 38, among others, accusing them of diverting more than $36 million in pension funds to refurbish and operate the resort.

The lawsuit was settled two years ago, with the stipulation that a Florida firm, WhiteStar Advisors, be appointed to "operate, manage or terminate Konocti's operations to preserve its value until it is sold."

Several possible buyers have come and gone, including one that court documents say offered $25 million before the real estate bubble burst. Published reports say the property is worth much less now.

Bay Area hotel analyst Rick Swig is less than sanguine about Konocti's future. The concerts, he said, "extended the life of the hotel . . . but it's tough. They've still got shag carpet in some of those rooms."

Mazzola said that if his father's creation doesn't sell, his own dream would be to reopen after Memorial Day -- though it's been a while since a concert has sold enough tickets even to cover costs.

But, he said ruefully, "don't ask me how."


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