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Uncle Sam buys Timberline a facelift

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Thursday, August 20, 2009
Timberline was built by the WPA and dedicated in 1937.

The Timberline Lodge is a National Historic Landmark and an international ski destination that hosts more than 2 million visitors a year. But the parking lot has potholes. The chimneys aren’t up to code. The roof of the day lodge leaks.

Major repairs at the lodge were deferred for years because they were too expensive for its operator, RLK and Company. But $4.25 million in federal stimulus funding approved last month will cover repairs, new paint and more, including alterations to make the lodge compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Most of the work will begin in the next 90 days; construction will take more than a year. Mt. Hood National Forest officials are developing contracts for bid and do not know how many jobs will be created.

Timberline has a bit of a stimulus habit. It was built in 15 months by 350 workers as a Works Progress Administration project, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated in 1937. But after the triumph of construction, a series of shoddy owners left it in serious disrepair. It was rescued by an injection of cash in 1955 from a wealthy businessman, Richard Kohnstamm, and the group of concerned citizens that became the nonprofit Friends of Timberline. Now the venerated resort will be revived again, this time thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The current backlog of maintenance is unfortunate, but what else is a federally owned ski lodge to do? Financing was always difficult because Timberline belongs to Uncle Sam, Kohnstamm told Lifestyles Northwest in a profile published in 2005, the year before he died. Timberline is still operated by the company he started, RLK and Company, which also takes care of basic maintenance in lieu of lease payments. But a building’s owner is the one accountable for its upkeep.

Timberline's grand hall (top); the lodge will get $4.5 million in repairs.

“Infrastructure issues are starting to catch up with us. These are things that they haven’t been able to earmark dollars for. That’s why the news of the stimulus dollars for Timberline is very timely and very appropriate,” says marketing director Jon Tullis, before rattling off a list of pressing repairs — like a new water main — that he says threaten to become “showstoppers” if deferred any longer.

A broken water main would be an unfortunate end for Oregon’s second-most popular tourist destination (Multnomah Falls is first), especially since business is pretty good. Attendance is down at ski camps, which usually draw kids from the East Coast. But three great winters and the introduction of a season pass have boosted overall revenue at Timberline in recent years, and the number of visitors is up this summer due to staycationers, Tullis says. The resort employs about 300 staff year-round and 600 during the busy winter season.

RLK and Company will work with contractors and the forest service to minimize the renovation’s effect on visitors, Tullis says. But the long-term impact will outweigh any short-term interruptions. “Our future lies in preserving our history,” he says.


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