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Yosemite National Park's Historic Ahwahnee Hotel Seeking $137 million to
 Overhaul the Hotel as Part of President Barack Obama's Stimulus Program
By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 5, 2009 - Yosemite National Park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel, a landmark destination with stunning views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point, could be closed for up to two years under a proposal by park officials to ensure it will survive a major earthquake.

With its towering ceilings, wood beams and massive stone fire places, the luxury hotel, built in 1927, is widely considered among the grandest of all lodges in America's national park system, and among the most famous hotels in California. It's also a major moneymaker for the park and the surrounding communities.

On Wednesday, Yosemite officials requested $137 million in federal funding to overhaul the hotel as part of President Barack Obama's stimulus program. The request was the largest item on a list of hundreds of Yosemite projects, said Scott Gediman, a spokesman for the park.

"The seismic retrofit of the Ahwahnee Hotel is a project we have had on the books for years. It has to be done," Gediman said.

It isn't clear where the Department of Interior, which oversees the national parks, will rank the Ahwahnee upgrade or whether it will be funded at all. Gediman said Yosemite leaders expect to find out by June if some or all of the money will be approved.

If the project does receive funding, it would take at least a year to begin construction, Gediman said, because of the time needed to obtain permits and allow people with existing room reservations to visit.

Concerns over the hotel's safety were highlighted in 2002. That year, the National Park Service paid URS Consulting, a San Francisco firm, to complete a 250-page report looking at the hotel's structural integrity in an earthquake.

How dangerous a big quake would be to the 81-year-old hotel is unclear, however. On Thursday, Acting Yosemite Superintendent Dave Uberuaga refused to release the seismic safety report to the Mercury News, calling it outdated. However, his spokesman could not cite any exemptions in the federal Freedom of Information Act that would allow the information to be kept from the public.

"It is 7 years old,'' Gediman said. "The information could have changed in terms of what the standards are for the retrofit. If we release it we'd have to take out some of the numbers."

Any shutdown of the Ahwahnee would present a major change for Yosemite and the economics of the surrounding communities. The hotel employs 300 people. Each year, thousands of tourists pay roughly $450 a night to stay there.

Last year, the park concession company, Delaware North, reported total gross revenue of about $125 million. Although the company does not release sales figures for individual businesses in the park, the Ahwahnee and its 123 rooms could bring at least $20 million a year, given its rates and 97 percent occupancy.

Officials at Delaware North said they want the public to understand the Ahwahnee remains open for business.

"This is a hypothetical situation. It is a project on a proposed wish list. We don't know if it is going to be funded,'' said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for Delaware North.

Closing the hotel could also shock the budget of surrounding counties. Mariposa County, where the hotel is located, last year derived $10 million of its $42 million general fund from the county's 11 percent hotel tax.

"We'll be watching this,'' said Mary Hodson, deputy county administrator. "Closing it would have a significant impact. The Ahwahnee is such a major attraction, some people want to come up here just to say they stayed in the Ahwahnee Hotel."

The hotel was built because Stephen Mather, the national parks director in the 1920s, wanted to lure business and government leaders to national parks to help raise their profile.

It worked.

Over the past 81 years, the guest list has been full of famous people, from heads of state like Queen Elizabeth, John F. Kennedy, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and the shah of Iran, to movie stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo to Brad Pitt and Robert Redford.

"Most national park visitors would consider the Ahwahnee to be the crown jewel of national park lodges," said David L. Scott, co-author of "The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges."

But eventually all buildings get old.

"It's a huge draw for Yosemite National Park. At some point, though, a lot of these historic hotels need major surgery,'' Scott said. "It's hard to do major work and still keep them open. It's just a case where you have to bite the bullet."

The Obama administration asked the National Park Service, like other federal agencies, to come up with lists of construction projects that could create jobs as part of the $787 billion stimulus bill that the president signed last month. Within that bill, the National Park Service received about $750 million.

Yosemite is no stranger to earthquakes.

In 1872, the Owens Valley earthquake, centered in Lone Pine about 100 miles away and estimated at a 7.4 magnitude, violently shook the park. In 1980, a 6.2 quake centered near Mammoth Lakes, about 40 miles away, frightened tourists and caused rock slides that blocked park roads and injured two hikers.

"The place has been shaken in the past,'' said David Oppenheimer, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park. "It's not as prone to earthquakes as the Bay Area, but it's not Kansas either."

Contact Paul Rogers at progers@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5045

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Copyright (c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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