Morton’s and the summer that never was
Morton’s Warm Springs owners and operators Laurie Hobbs and Sean Wadsworth last week announced that they have decided to keep the 19-acre Kenwood pool complex closed for the year. They described it in a letter to the community as a decision they did not take lightly – largely because of how valuable they believed “a dose of sunshine, connection in nature and a dip in the medicine of hot springs” could be during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But financial and safety concerns made reopening the pools an unworkable proposition.
Hobbs and Wadsworth are part of a group of family and friends who bought Morton's Warm Springs in late 2016 from the previous owner, Stephen Compagni Portis.
Normally Morton’s Warm Springs opens in early May, first on weekends and then full time. The couple has permission from the county be open for the general public full time for only three months a year, plus some shoulder season weekends and holidays.
The couple has been waiting all spring and summer, wondering if and when they would be able to reopen.
“Every week that passed made us realize that if we don’t open soon, we can’t open at all,” said Hobbs. “This is very different from a year-round business, we can only make money in a short period of time.”
The past four years have been a challenge, Wadsworth told the Index-Tribune. Since taking the reins, the couple has faced challenges from fires, blackouts and COVID; both Hobbs and Wadsworth gave up their regular jobs and moved on the property full-time. The couple, now in their mid-30s, also had their first baby.
“We went out on a huge limb buying this place,” Hobbs said. “2020 was going to be the first year we could work on some rewarding projects like some environmental restoration of this stretch of Sonoma Creek.”
Once the couple finally got the sense that reopening would be allowed by the county, they realized that the necessary restrictions placed on them were daunting.
“The very nature of the service we offer is the antithesis of everything we would be asked to do,” said Wadsworth. “We’re an inexpensive place for groups to socialize and bond, that’s why people come.” But in order to reopen, any areas on the site that encourage group gathering would be roped off.
During the short period they would be open, they would have needed to limit their guests at any one time but assemble a full staff “from zero” to take care of the cleaning and monitoring of visitor compliance.
The groups, schools and families that have booked visits to Morton’s in year’s past – groups of 20 to 800 - have already had to shift plans away from field trips, reunions and other social gatherings for the year, said Wadsworth.
Pairing an already shortened season with the need to limit the number of daily visitors without any reduction in their fixed costs, made the decision an obvious but “unhappy” one.
When fully operational, Morton’s boasts two geothermal mineral pools and a wading pool, geothermal showers and changing rooms, a café, creekside picnic and barbecue sites, access to Sonoma Creek, ping pong and lawn games.
The couple is proud of the changes they have instituted since taking over. They opened a small organic restaurant on the property and improved the operation of the geothermal pools so they are cleaner and warmer, using a minimum amount of chlorine.
The couple plans to spend the coming months tackling a long list of deferred maintenance projects – “luckily, we’re all handy and super-DIY,” said Hobbs – and meeting with neighbors and the county to talk about the resort’s beginnings as a sacred springs, its golden years and what it can be in the future.
“We think a lot about what it means to be stewards of this historic and special place,” said Hobbs. “We want the community to be able to get together in a natural setting and spend the day enjoying warm springs for a reasonable price.” Hobbs pointed out that while public hot springs were once a common offering around Sonoma and Napa counties, currently there are no options like Morton’s within 50 miles.
Morton’s Warm Springs is planned to reopen May 2, 2021.
Contact Lorna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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