By SAM HOUSEHOLDER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
SYRACUSE — After five years of uncertainty, the Oakwood Resort on Lake Wawasee checked in its first guests under new ownership last week.
The property had been in limbo for much of the past four years, bouncing between ownership groups, courtrooms and would-be deals that fell short.
According to Goshen News files, a tentative deal by Indianapolis-based Buckingham Properties fell through late last year and the property was bought by Dr. Rex Parent, a local businessman and resident.
Under his ownership, Parent hired Jeremiah Heierman to manage the Oakwood Inn, the flagship building of the property.
Work began earlier this year to get the property ready for this summer season.
Parent had planned to open the inn on Memorial Day weekend, but issues with the building’s air conditioning unit pushed the opening back to June 10.
Guests who had been booked were called and rescheduled.
“It’s been intense,” Heierman said of the renovation process. “We flipped a hotel in basically 120 days. Everything got stripped out of here from the flooring, wallpaper, ceilings, all the fixtures. Basically the building was gutted and has been redone.”
Heierman said the property was in relatively good shape after being empty for several years and that the process was more about updating the decor than fixing or overhauling the building.
“We had a good group of people, but they’ve been working 18 hours a day,” he said.
About 15 rooms were filled on the first night and the inn hosted the Wawasee Community School Corp.’s teacher’s conference.
A community hub
During the time that the resort sat empty, the community worked to make sure that the future use stayed true to the resort’s past.
According to Heierman, the Parent family wanted to keep ownership local. He said a company from outside the area was looking to take it over and that didn’t sit well with locals.
“The community really felt like it was like a big box store that was taking over something that was local,” he said. “So the Parent family felt it was important that they got someone like myself, who is local and we’ve tried to (hire) people who are local.”
Heierman said that the hotel staff is aiming to eventually have 75 to 125 employees from the Kosciusko County area.
“The public here has been really supportive of us coming back and excited,” he said.
According to Heierman, the 27-acre resort property includes the inn, two convention halls, 10 vacation homes, eight cabins, and a smaller hotel with eight rooms.
“We started with the inn and then we’re going to branch out and really work on the rest of the stuff on the property,” he said.
“The inn was our main focus right now. The restaurant is up and going, that’s going to be a really big part of the environment here on Lake Wawasee.”
Heierman said they have a three-year plan to try and get the property back to where it was.
“I really see the property being somewhere you definitely have a lot of the traffic in June, July, August, September,” he said. “When the kids are out of school, its booming around here.”
The inn wants to book weddings and business conferences, too, Heierman said.
The long-term future of the resort is not just as a destination for vacationers and business people though, Heierman said, but as a community spot for locals to gather.
New additions to the resort include an arcade room, where guests can hang out on rainy days and there are plans in the works to bring in a coffee shop and a salon and spa.
“It will be more of a community hub, people will come here and be able to grab a coffee and hang out in the lobby and enjoy dinner,” he said.
For the first time in the property’s 120-year history, the restaurants have a liquor license, allowing people to enjoy a drink with dinner at one of the two on-site restaurants.
While Heierman admits there is still some work to be done on the complex, he said that community feedback, as well as reservations, have been rolling in.
“Now everything’s not perfect, we’re still working on some things, but people are able to come and stay the night and enjoy,” he said.
Heierman said that around 1,700 nights have been booked at the inn “site unseen.” People from around the country who have fond memories of the resort are eager to return and see the revamped property.
Heierman said they have seven weddings scheduled and “quite a few” business conferences.
“People are really excited to see us in the neighborhood again,” he said.