Meeks Bay a tough place to make a buck; Former lessee recalls tough lessons
After investing 20 years of his life managing Meeks Bay Resort on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore, Duke Hubbard has little to show for the time except for some cabinets, display cases and two decades of memories.
Hubbard recalls the best of his time at Meeks Bay with fondness, but predicts the next company to enter a lease with the U.S. Forest Service to manage the resort will have just as hard a time making it a commercial success.
The Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is expected to name the successful bidder for the resort and adjacent campground on Tuesday.
Among the five bidders is the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. For centuries, members of the tribe would escape the heat of the Carson Valley during the summer and camp at Lake Tahoe, including Meeks Bay.
Hubbard, whose DeWitt Clinton Growth Corp. began managing the resort in 1978, said he expects the Forest Service to award the Washoe the next lease.
“I’d be surprised if they don’t get it,” Hubbard said. “Maybe the Washoe, if they get money from the federal government, could actually show a profit. But Meeks Bay is a tough nut to make any money at.”
Hubbard recounts a rocky relationship with the Forest Service and other Tahoe Basin regulators that, he said, thwarted his plans for improving the resort and campground. Part of the problem, Hubbard said, was a continual turnover in personnel who worked with him. Assurances by some Forest Service employees that the visitors center he built was his, for instance, were officially reversed by the Forest Service counsel last year, leaving Hubbard with no financial legacy from his tenure at Meeks Bay.
For its part, the Forest Service describes a different relationship with Hubbard, saying that the lease holder failed to deliver on his promises.
“We don’t wish to publicly chastise Duke Hubbard,” said Linda Massey, the Tahoe unit’s public information officer. “We have a significant difference of opinion about what transpired.”
The Forest Service withheld half of Hubbard’s $50,000 performance bond, saying he did not build a new water line as he was required to do. And Massey said Hubbard has no right to claim the $325,000 visitors center he built in 1980 as his own.
“I can’t say if any other employee, who did not have the authority to do so, made any other statement,” Massey said.
But Hubbard points to annual Forest Service audits that identified the visitors center as “permittee-owned,” the El Dorado County tax assessments he paid, and the fact he did not pay rent on the facility.
But, beyond the dispute with the Forest Service over ownership of the center, Hubbard said Meeks Bay was a beautiful place to live, but a tough place to do business.
“It’s a fantastic location, a beautiful place,” said Hubbard, who began visiting the area with his family in 1948. “The pre- and post-seasons were the best times for my family. We would go up to the lakeshore, and there wouldn’t be a soul around. And there’s a certain, invigorating smell there.”
But the qualities that make Meeks Bay a desirable place – its relative isolation – also made the resort a tough go from the beginning, Hubbard said.
“This was not a Ski Run Marina, a Zephyr Cove or Camp Richardson,” Hubbard said. “The Forest Service dreams about cash flow, but our tax returns show it wasn’t a big money-maker. Meeks Bay is the most remote business location on the circumference of Lake Tahoe. The road from the South Shore is closed for most of the winter, and it’s out of the way for tourists coming from the north. Once they pass Sugar Pine Point State Park, people turn around.”
Most of the resort’s income came during the two months between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, and efforts to keep the resort open during the winter were a complete failure. Not only was business slow during the winter, Hubbard said, but the resort’s cabins were built as summer residences and lack the insulation needed to make them cozy in the winter.
Over the years, federal laws governing drinking water changed and Hubbard was required to upgrade the system with the changes. But Hubbard said conflicting regulations and the possible presence of archeological artifacts frustrated his efforts to build an underground line to connect to a municipal water supply.
And he was also required to remove the old underground fuel tanks at the resort’s marina, yet was unable to install new ones.
Since Hubbard acquired the resort’s lease in 1978, the Forest Service reduced the number of campground units from 80 to 28, and the number of residential units is smaller now than in 1978.
Hubbard blames his problems on a lack of sympathy for businesses by the Forest Service and other basin regulators.
“Attitudes toward growth and development changed since 1978,” said the 59-year-old Hubbard, who added he might be tempted to manage a resort property again under different circumstances. “What once were positive terms are now negative terms.”
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