Mountain of woes
When you see state park rangers busing tables and washing dishes at the fancy hotel you’re shelling out many dollars to stay in, you’ve got to wonder. Is the $33 million Lodge at Mount Magazine ready for prime time?
Former employees and visitors — who want to see the new tourist attraction succeed — are saying it wasn’t, at least not at first.
Not too many days after the Lodge at Mount Magazine had its gala opening May 1, the chef, kitchen staff, the dining room manager, the assistant dining room manager, the head of housekeeping, front desk personnel all left. Their complaint: the lodge was understaffed and they were overworked.
A big rain left the lodge flooded in places. Plumbing problems caused a ceiling in the laundry room to cave in.
“We didn’t have the right team” in place, state Parks Director Greg Butts said of the early glitches at Mount Magazine.
“We should have opened on June 1, had the grand opening on butterfly festival weekend,” former Chef Larry Kelly said. Kelly, who started his restaurant career in Little Rock and owned Chef Larry’s in Altus, and whose menu was much touted in the run-up events for the press and VIPs, quit May 21. He had a heart attack last year, and he was afraid he’d have another if he continued to work at the pace that understaffing imposed.
Initially, Kelly was given only 17 kitchen workers — which, by the way, is the same number that one can see at Feltner’s Whattaburger in Russellville on a Friday night — for the 125-seat dining room and 200-seat convention facility initially. To handle banquets, the park asked spouses of park employees to help serve.
Butts conceded that the lodge was understaffed, and that rangers were put to work in the dining room of the lodge, the jewel of the state’s park system. But Butts blamed that on a high turnover rate, which “is not uncommon in the hotel-hospitality industry.”
The huge numbers of visitors at first was “unanticipated,” Butts said. And while he didn’t have the “details” on the flooding and plumbing ills, he said those things happen. “They will all be handled.”
Butts noted that the lodge at DeGray State Park is a bigger operation and has no more warm bodies to run it than does Magazine.
But the most expensive room at DeGray is $90 a night, compared to $199 at the Lodge at Mount Magazine, and its food is not touted as gourmet.
“Everybody wants it to succeed,” Bill Warren, the owner of Warren’s Shoe Store in Paris, said. Warren had a rocky first visit, but has now eaten four times at the restaurant, stayed in a room at the lodge and visited family in a cabin. He said service has improved with each visit.
Parks director Butts said the lodge is advertising for a new manager and assistant manager for the restaurant.
Max Brantley’s column this week reports for the first time that the historic Donaghey Building has changed ownership and a new owner, Smith Investments LLC, will soon be announcing plans to convert floors 5-14 of one of the city’s first skyscrapers to condos. The deal hinges on a parking deck acquisition that Brantley details.
Stephanie Smith, who moved to Little Rock from Florida to run the venture, says she wants the condos to be affordable.
She says there will be 112 condos in 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom models ranging from 800 to 1,600 square feet, with the biggest on the top floors. She’s estimating prices in the range of $150 to $175 per square foot. Interior demolition is underway and she’s excited about the uncovering of period architectural details hidden over the years by dropped ceilings and partitions added as the building was remade for offices.
The Hall High Class of 1966 held a 40th reunion last weekend and some were disappointed that classmate Richard Thalheimer, the founder and CEO of The Sharper Image, wasn’t able to attend.
But Thalheimer sent greetings. Everyone who attended the dinner-dance at the Pleasant Valley Country Club got a Sharper Image bag containing a letter from Thalheimer (he regretted that a family commitment prevented his attendance) and a Soap Genie. It’s a gadget sold in Thalheimer’s stores that dispenses liquid soap (no touch required; an infrared sensor triggers the soap flow when a hand passes beneath it) and plays music.
Red carpet treatment
We invite everyone to welcome to town the Arkansas Times’ colleagues in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a national organization of papers like us. AAN is holding its annual meeting in Little Rock this week. In addition to sessions on the business and editorial aspects of weekly newspapering, the group will be hearing from former President Clinton, Susan McDougal and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. (We’d have been happy to invite future presidential contender Mike Huckabee, but perhaps you’ve heard we have this little problem getting the governor on the telephone.)