|By Jeffrey P. Mayor, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 13, 2004 - The historic Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park is to be closed in 2006 for a $10.8 million renovation. And if the timing works out and funding is available, park officials hope to begin construction of a new Jackson Visitor Center the same season.
Built in 1917, the 118-room inn is slated for work on the building's foundation and to improve its ability to withstand an earthquake.
"That would involve an actual closure of the building," park Superintendent David Uberuaga said. "We know we'll have to close it for one season, and maybe two seasons.
"We haven't disrupted it for 85 years, and now we have to do some major work. When you put it in context, while shutting it down is drastic, once in its lifetime isn't too bad."
The inn is the focal point of the Paradise area, the most heavily visited area in the park, attracting up to 1 million visitors a year.
The 2 1/2-story main building was built from fire-charred Alaskan cedar taken from a nearby forest. The area offers views of the mountain and Nisqually Glacier, as well as easy access to meadows filled with wildflowers and a network of trails.
The park, the concessionaire that runs the inn and the contractor should know early this summer whether the building needs to be closed for one or two seasons, Uberuaga said.
The inn renovation and construction of the new $18.5 million visitor center are set to begin in 2006, if money is available. Both projects are in the National Park Service's five-year plan, Uberuaga said, but Congress must appropriate the money.
The probable closure represents a challenge to the park and the company, said Pam Newlun, sales manger for Mount Rainier Guest Services, the company that runs the inn.
"The places we will have open will be very, very busy," she said. "What we have to answer is: How we will accommodate the visitor and make it an experience they will remember?"
Newlun said that when the inn's rooms are booked, an average of 260 people are spending the night. The restaurant, which seats 200 people, can serve an average of 300 people per meal during the busy season in July and August.
Guest Services could see lost lodging and dining revenue approach $2 million in July and August alone.
"We haven't discussed any plans of how we will operate during that time and how we may change the facilities that will be open," Newlun said. "There is still some discussion of what areas of the hotel will be impacted."
Uberuaga said while a final decision has not been made, the entire inn likely will be closed to allow work to proceed.
"The timing is never very good for the visitor or the concessionaire," Uberuaga admitted.
Uberuaga said one idea to ease traffic congestion in the area would be a shuttle bus system.
"Facilitywise, the inn will be closed, but the majority of the area will be open," Uberuaga said. "All the access to the trails will be open. What won't be there is the convenience of parking right at the inn and those 35,000 guests who spend the night at the inn."
Even when the work is done, Newlun said, the company and park will have to work hard to get the word out.
"The National Park Inn was closed for 13 months for renovations (in 1990) and it took awhile for people to realize it was open again," she said of the inn at Longmire.
At the same time, Uberuaga hopes construction will begin on a new Jackson Visitor Center.
Over the course of two years, a 20,000-square-foot building will be built. The architecture of the new structure will be more compatible with the rest of the area, Uberuaga said. It will have a steeply sloped roof, and an open timber design.
Once the new center is open, the current 60,000-square-foot structure, completed in 1966 and described by some as looking like a grounded space ship, will be dismantled.
Though the center will be smaller, the majority of the space will be devoted to the people who come to the center each year, more than 272,000 in 2003. The superintendent said there would be fewer offices and storage rooms.
The new building also will be more energy efficient, Uberuaga said. The current building needs 500 gallons of diesel fuel to heat it on cold winter days.
Another reason to build a new structure is the snow-melt system on the existing building has reached the end of its usable life. Original estimates to renovate the current building were nearly as expensive as the cost of the new building, and did not include work on the snow-melt system.
Keeping the snow off the building is crucial, because the Paradise area receives an average of more than 675 inches each year.
While two major projects certainly would create headaches at one of the park's most popular destinations, the superintendent said it was best to do them at the same time.
"We felt maybe it's better to have that impact the same two years, rather than spread it over four," he said.
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(c) 2004, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.