KINGSTON — Although business isn't what it used to be, the occasional tourist still drops by Dolores Pitt's curio shop at Main Street and U.S. Highway 70 to ask what happened to Lake Texoma State Lodge.
These days, the only guests on the grassy spot where the lodge once stood overlooking the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge on Lake Texoma are the Texas-size mosquitoes.
“It feels like we've been ripped off,” Pitt said, who owns D's Creative Corner in Kingston.
Like many area residents, Pitt is angry that the private developers who promised the state to build a four-star hotel in the area to replace the lodge have yet to move forward on the project.
Four miles east of Kingston, the hands of a clock at the Lake Texomaland Fun Park are frozen at 6:30 and weeds and grass have overtaken the go-cart track as well as a nearby riding stable.
Although a sign at the abandoned amusement park, proclaims it's “time for fun,” the park, which once contained bumper boats and a video game arcade, has been closed for several years. Like much of the surrounding land, the riding stable and amusement park are owned by Oklahoma City-based Pointe Vista Development.
Marshall County residents still are waiting for a luxury hotel to be built on the site seven years after Pointe Vista inked a deal with the state to purchase the lodge and 750 acres of parkland for $14.6 million. The development group is owned by Chaparral Energy CEO Mark Fischer and former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon.
Tension between residents and business owners on the banks of Lake Texoma and Pointe Vista is growing as a deadline looms for the developer to build the hotel.
Tourist traffic in this Marshall County town of about 1,000 residents has slowed somewhat since the lodge and a clutch of lakeside cabins at the park shut down in late 2006. Pitt estimates her business has dropped off by about two-thirds since the lodge and cabins closed.
“We're paying the bills, but that's about all we're doing,” Pitt said. “I'm not making any money.”
Through a spokesman, Pointe Vista said it shares the residents' frustration with a lack of progress on the development. Pointe Vista spokesman Brent Gooden gave The Oklahoman an eight-page written response to a reporter's questions about the project.
“We understand and respect their frustration. In fact, like many in the area, we wish we were underway with the project,” Gooden said. “Even though the market over the past few years has not been favorable toward hospitality and hotel development, given the improving economic outlook, we believe and upscale resort is doable.”
As with the residents of Kingston, Pointe Vista's relationship with state officials also has become strained.
After meeting in closed session at its June meeting, the Oklahoma Commissioners of the Land Office voted to spend up to $250,000 to hire outside legal representation to represent the state in the Pointe Vista matter.
“At this point in time we just feel like it's important to have outside legal counsel to advise us on what options will be on the table for the land commission and the interest of the state,” Gov. Mary Fallin said after the meeting.
Fallin was an early supporter of the Pointe Vista development. In 2007, during her tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, Fallin and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore teamed up to sponsor a bill to transfer 227 acres of shoreline at Lake Texoma from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Oklahoma. The transfer would allow the state to sell the land to Pointe Vista and pave the way private development.
At the time, Fallin touted the legislation as “one of the last pieces of the puzzle” to bring millions of dollars of new private investment to Lake Texoma, creating new jobs in the area.
Six years later, Pointe Vista has yet to break ground on the development. The state has the right to sue Pointe Vista if the hotel is not substantially completed by May 2014.
Over the past 18 months, Fallin has met with Pointe Vista to attempt to encourage the developers to move the project along. At her direction, the Commissioners of the Land Office sent a pointed letter to Pointe Vista in February asking for a specific timeline for the project and other information.
In its response — sent seven weeks later — Pointe Vista blamed the economic downturn of 2008 for drying up financing for the project and said it would likely ask for an extension to hold up its end of the development contract with the state.
“In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it became virtually impossible to obtain equity investors and financing for the Pointe Vista project,” Pointe Vista CEO Mark Fischer and son, Scott Fischer, the developer's chief operating officer, said in the letter. “In addition, during the past few years, one of our lead investors has faced significant business and financial challenges.”
Harry Birdwell, secretary for the Commissioners of the Land Office, said the commission has grown more concerned about the future of the project as time has passed without a groundbreaking. Pointe Vista's response to the commission's letter did little reassure him.
“I still don't think they answered my questions,” he said.
Without a firm development plan in place, Birdwell said he would not recommend that the land commission give Pointe Vista an extension on its contract.
“We have tried to suggest alternatives to get them moving — the governor has introduced people she has met all over the country,” Birdwell said. “We've done all we can to help them find resources.”
Push for privatization
Before the state moved to sell the Lake Texoma parkland, lodge and cabins to Pointe Vista, the facilities were beginning to show their age and funding for needed upgrades was scarce.
The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department estimates that it needed $20 million to $40 million to make repairs at Lake Texoma. Occupancy was down at the park and the state had operated the Lodge and cabins for several years at a loss before Pointe Vista acquired the property.
In 2005, the Oklahoma state park system faced a $90 million backlog of maintenance needs. Faced with a lack of state funding, the state moved to privatize a portion of the park.
Pointe Vista's plans to develop a $750 million to $1 billion resort-like development on the shores of Lake Texoma were initially met with enthusiasm from the locals, said Mark Codner, publisher of the Madill Record newspaper.
“At the time, we thought privatization would do things for the local economy that the state couldn't — we thought it was the way to go,” Codner said.
Although construction has yet to begin, Pointe Vista estimates that it has already invested about $45 million into the development.
The developer has spent most of that money on additional real estate in the area — about $21.5 million. That includes purchasing a marina at Catfish Bay and the nearby Chickasaw Pointe Golf Course. Pointe Vista has sunk more money into upgrades and renovations at the golf course and marina.