This fall will mark the five-year anniversary of Honey Creek Resort.
The time period has seen an increase in tourism to Appanoose County. That, in turn, has created jobs — for example allowing naturalist Hannah Wiltamuth to work nearer her family. It has also sparked interest among business owners wanting to invest in the growing Rathbun Lake economy — for example attracting restaurateur Tim Holmes from Des Moines to run Louie’s Lakeside Bistro and Jim and Diane Wakelin from Ottumwa to run the Grey Goose Inn.
Joyce Bieber, executive director of the Centerville–Rathbun Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, says revenue from the lodging tax is going up, which reflects increased business not only at the resort but also at other lodging places around the lake.
Bieber says tourists visiting the resort come into the Chamber’s office in Centerville on a daily basis during the summer.
“We get reports from retailers as well that they have a lot of visitors from the resort,” she says.
She says she has seen recognition of this area increase dramatically. For 14 years, the Chamber has had a booth at the Iowa State Fair’s Varied Industries Building. At first, most people who visited the booth had never heard of Rathbun Lake.
“Now in the booth I am amazed at the number of people who have been to the resort and had a really positive experience, and they just want to tell us about it,” she says. “Or they haven’t been here but they’ve heard about it and really want to come.”
Bieber says resort employees have been great at encouraging resort guests to visit surrounding towns. Also, the resort has hosted retreats and conventions that could not have come to Appanoose County before. She cites the WHO Tractor Ride in summer 2012 as an event that would not have been possible without the hotel rooms at the resort.
“It opens up a whole new world for us as far as our ability to host events and the exposure that comes with that,” Bieber says.
It just comes natural
A little more than three years ago, Corydon native Hannah Wiltamuth was able to return to her home area and live close to her family when she was hired at the resort as interpretive program director.
“I was looking for an opportunity to move back to Iowa,” she says.
Wiltamuth had been working in the education department at the Phoenix Zoo, a career path she pursued because of her lifelong love of nature.
“I was always just an outdoors kid,” she says. “I was always fishing and riding horses and just being outside, so I think it was just kind of a natural transition into wanting to educate people about the outdoors and teach about conservation.”
Wiltamuth says she has seen a lot of changes in the past three years. For one, when she started, the Activities Building where she and the other naturalists work was in pieces in the parking lot waiting to be assembled.
Since then, she says, she has seen participation in the naturalists’ programs more than double. The programs are free and open to the public. While most people who utilize the programs are resort guests, Wiltamuth says there has been a marked increase in the number of locals who attend.
“It’s something for people who are staying here to do, but also if you are in town and you are looking for an excuse to get outside and do something, our job is to connect people to nature,” she says.
Wiltamuth says her favorite part of her job is getting to meet so many different people from so many different places. Often, repeat guests report about how they have used the skills from the programs in other places.
One family who came for vacation from Kansas City liked the resort so much that their son ended up doing his Eagle Scout project there. The project included putting in bird feeders, park benches, butterfly houses and bat houses.
Wiltamuth says the most popular programs are kayaking and stargazing. Other programs include hikes, fishing, fireside programs and geocaching. The schedule is available at www.honeycreekresort.com/events_calendar/events/.
The more the merrier
Tim Holmes, a former Des Moines restaurant owner, took over management of the marina restaurant three years ago because he believed it was a viable business, and he has seen his business grow quickly.
Sheila and Douglas Clemens bought the marinas in 2009 after having an upholstery business for about 25 years. A few years ago, they started Your Boat Works LLC in Moravia. When they bought the marinas they brought their business with them, which meant an increase in services for marina customers.
Sheila says they have seen marina business grow over the past couple of years.
“We have a lot more people through the week that we did not have before,” she says.
Holmes says he was interested in running the restaurant because he and his wife, Marian, had been boating on Rathbun Lake for about nine years. He was looking to move closer to the lake and for a while had the Skean Block restaurant in Albia.
“To me the resort has had a great impact from day one,” he says. “It brought business when I had the Skean Block, and it draws people to this place weekly even in the cold winter months.”
This was Holmes’ second year of keeping Louie’s Lakeside Bistro open year-round on the weekends.
“I saw an increase of people,” he says. “Many times we saw groups come over that were at the resort that normally wouldn’t have even been in the area.”
This summer he is increasing the hours at Louie’s two days a week and is considering further expansions based on how business goes.
Holmes says he is glad to see the lake economy growing.
“The more the merrier,” he says. “The more attractions, the more reasons for people to come down here.”
Turning a getaway into home
This past winter, Jim and Diane Wakelin made the gamble of buying the Grey Goose Inn and moving into it.
The Wakelins, who relocated from Ottumwa, already have had more business than they expected and anticipate many busy weekends this summer.
The Wakelins first became aware of the inn when Diane stayed there for a scrapbooking workshop. She had forgotten something at home and asked her husband to drive it down. When he got there, she gave him a tour. The inn was for sale, and the other women at the workshop teased them, saying they should buy it.
“It started out as a friendly joke between friends,” Jim says. “A year later, we were in the thick of doing a contract and arranging the sale.”
Jim, a minister, is still working in Ottumwa and plans to retire in about 10 years. He says he always had a dream of being on a lake.
The inn, built in 2001, has eight rooms and can accommodate up to 25 guests. The upper level, with queen beds, is oriented toward families and couples while the lower level, with twin beds, is geared toward hunters and fishers. Both floors feature a large common area, and out back is a deck with a grill.
Diane says they are looking forward to continuing to host scrapbooking and quilting retreats as well as church groups.
The Wakelins both get to use their expertise in running the inn. Diane, formerly a middle school and high school family and consumer science teacher, says she enjoys using her culinary skills preparing meals for guests. Jim’s college education was in computers and business, which he has applied to their new venture, including a redesign to their website that allows guests to book online.
The Wakelins say after they moved in, they went to tour the resort and have received many referrals when the resort is full.
“They were so friendly and accommodating,” Jim says. “There wasn’t a sense of a competition between us and them, and that’s what we were really hoping for.”
Diane says they have already been busier than they expected.
“We were surprised how much business we had over February through April,” she says. “We had anticipated that to be our down season.”
Jim says the best part so far is getting to meet the guests and their new neighbors in the subdivision.
“The neighbors here were very assertive about getting to know us and invited us to a Friday get-together,” he says. “It has that old-town type of feel you just don’t get in the city.”
The Wakelins had only been to Rathbun Lake a couple of times before they became interested in buying the inn. Every couple of evenings, they take a drive through the state park to enjoy nature, and Jim likes to use his membership at The Preserve at Rathbun Lake golf course weekly.
“Even living here feels like you get away,” Jim says. “Yet we also recognize we’re close enough that if we want to go do something, we can usually do it.”