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Defunct J's Amusement Park in Guerneville being turned into 'glamping' resort

GUERNEVILLE - The last remnants of a defunct amusement park that for 60-odd years drew visitors to test the rides and sleep beneath the redwoods on the south side of the Russian River are being cleared this week to make way for development of an upscale poolside and 'glamping' resort set to open in summer 2021.

Most of what was J's Amusement Park already is long gone. But what's left is soon to be reduced to heaps of splintered wood, crumpled metal and broken asphalt chunks.

It will be a few months before the next phase in the site's evolution begins to take shape, but plans call for something decidedly swankier.

San Francisco-based Shelter Co. founders Kelsey and Mike Sheofsky, event producers and purveyors of luxury tents and accessories that give camping a whole new vibe, now own the 11-plus acre property partly framed by Neeley Road, Pocket Canyon Highway and Mays Canyon Road. The company's creative director, Maggie Wilson, is also a partner in the new project.

The project's working title, River Electric, was inspired by a desert electric utility van the Sheofskys observed while scouting a different property in an arid part of California some time ago. And they eventually decided just to stick with the name, on the grounds that 'if it ain't broke...,' Wilson said.

Its centerpiece is to be a round pool about 60 feet in diameter, surrounded by a huge lawn and lounging deck. The partners plan cabana-like structures, lawn games and a large pool house restroom with showers and changing rooms.

'It's a little bit of a throwback to the days of fancy pool life,' when vacationers would spend whole days lounging around with friends between refreshing dips, Kelsey Sheofsky said.

Plans also include a general store offering appropriate poolside grab-and-go food and beverages, as well as local artisanal gifts and goods, some of which still has to be determined, she said.

Overnight lodging will be available on the back half of the property beneath a forest of redwood, Oregon ash and box elder trees. An army of workers with an arborist were working there Monday clearing the entire area of poison oak down to the roots.

About 40 of the company's high-end canvas tents are currently planned for the wooded area, some perhaps more fully furnished, and others less so, available at lower cost — 'for those who want to crash at the end of a pool day,' Sheofsky said.

There will be opportunities for group events — weddings and corporate gatherings, for instance — in addition to regular daily use and overnight accommodations, she said.

The entirety of the project is being built for a site known to have endured severe flooding as recently as February. Plans call for utilizing building materials like concrete, steel and tile that are more resilient to flooding than drywall or wood, which absorb water.

Since the resort will be closed during the rainy season, the operators can remove the tents and anything that might be damaged to higher ground.

Sheofsky said it was instructive to see the property when it was inundated in February during the worst flooding in a quarter century, and the floodwater reached high up the redwood trees.

'We're operating under the assumption we could have a flood like that every year — and if we don't, that's great,' she said.

The Sheofskys opened Shelter Co.'s luxury camping service in 2012 and produce high-end weddings, festivals and other gatherings in eight states. Their approach is both design and labor-intensive, featuring well-appointed sleeping, dining and living quarters complete with furnishing, rugs and throw pillows that can be installed on a mountaintop or in a remote meadow.

With about 150 events a year, they're no strangers to the area, having handled numerous events in Sonoma and Napa counties, Kelsey Sheofsky said.

She and her husband also have owned a vacation home for about seven years in the lower river community of Villa Grande, so they have a special connection with the Russian River region, she said.

Meanwhile, they had been looking for a permanent spot to host events almost since founding their company. Last year, while attending a birthday party at nearby Parker's Resort on Neeley Road, they had a flash of inspiration. They called their Realtor just to make sure it wasn't available, and learned the Skaggs property was about to be listed.

'I've never, ever considered it before,' Sheofsky said. 'That's how things work. Always.'

Ironically, the owners, Mike Skaggs and his late wife, Tracie, who died this summer, had just decided to sell the property and move to Oregon, she said.

The amusement park founded by Mike's grandfather in the 1950s had long since fallen into disrepair. Large paved patches and a stair to nowhere were all that was left of what had been a Mouse Trap roller coaster, Tilt-A-Whirl, Go-Kart racers, giant water slide and other attractions abandoned in the early 2000s, when Mike and Tracie Skaggs made a go of running a campground called Camp Outback, using just the wooded back of the property. But continued problems with code violations and rising costs eventually caused them to close their business and forced them to move.

Once the Sheofskys got a spot near the river, with the redwoods and the proximity to downtown Guerneville, their concept changed to include overnight stays and to offer a daytime 'hub' for Sonoma County visitors.

'It's been kind of a fun thing to build this concept over the last year, since we purchased the land, trying to combine day use, as well as people wanting to stay the night,' she said.

West county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins cited the project as the latest in a handful of recent additions to the river community that some say have elevated the business district.

'The Lower Russian River continues to be revitalized by an amazing group of creative and enthusiastic entrepreneurs, and the team responsible from The River Electric is no exception,' Hopkins said. 'I am excited to watch J's Amusement Park transform into a unique hospitality concept that will create yet another great spot for locals and visitors to enjoy.'

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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