Lake County’s Harbin Hot Springs will reopen its pools next year

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A John Deere skip loader crept up the slope of the mostly barren construction site where Lake County’s popular Harbin Hot Springs resort once stood. When it reached the top of the slope, the driver carefully maneuvered around pristine pools, a new sundeck, benches and walkways.

The recent completion of the pool area represents the first major milestone in the reconstruction of a retreat that for decades attracted visitors from across the Bay Area and beyond. Its hot and cold pools, especially the ones at the top of the slope, were the heart and soul of the tranquil, clothing-optional resort, destroyed by the Valley fire in 2015.

Eric Richardson, one of six managing directors at Harbin, said they hope to reopen the pool area to visitors sometime next year. He said the completion of the pool area feels like waking up after a long, bad dream.

“It also represents the first stirrings of hope and accomplishment and renewal for our staff,” Richardson said. “There’s excitement among us every day we get closer. For a long period, it wasn’t exciting. But now it’s really starting to bubble.”

The rebuilding effort has been a monumental task for the New Age nonprofit religious organization that owns and operates Harbin. Based in Middletown, the Heart Consciousness Church had $11 million in insurance money, far less than the rebuilding cost, Richardson said.

To reconstruct the resort, including its cottages, communal kitchen, main offices, health services building, restaurant, library and surrounding facilities, they initially expected to spend about $50 million. However, with rising construction costs, they had to pare down the project, which now is expected to cost more than $60 million.

The Northern California wildfires, including last year’s devastating Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa and Butte County’s Camp fire last month, drove up the cost of construction and building materials, Richardson said.

Construction costs doubled from $250 to $350 a square foot to about $500 to $700 a square foot, he said.

“The fire in Santa Rosa absorbed a lot of contractors,” Richardson said.

The Valley fire broke out Sept. 12, 2015, and tore through 120 square miles of southern Lake County, killing four people within the first day. It destroyed nearly 1,300 homes in Cobb, Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake before it was contained more than a month later.

Most of the structures at Harbin were destroyed by the fire, but soon after the smoke cleared it became evident that the hot springs continued to flow.

The pool area was the obvious place to focus initial reconstruction efforts on, Richardson said.

About $20 million have been spent reconstructing the hot and cold pools. The pools have been resurfaced, while other structures, including the hot sauna and steam room, have been completely rebuilt.

The small room that housed the main hot pool was also rebuilt, though it resembles the old structure.

Where a poolside cafe once stood, a brand new kidney-shaped pool has been added for “Watsu,” aquatic bodywork therapy sessions.

A pool area also features a new sundeck that includes a modern, ADA-compliant elevator that Richardson said is likely “the nicest elevator in Middletown.” He said the deck has been redesigned for greater wheelchair accessibility.

The reopening of Harbin Hot Springs, along with the return of other key resorts, is crucial to Lake County’s financial recovery, said Melissa Fulton, CEO of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce. The resort significantly contributes to the county’s hotel room tax revenue by drawing in visitors, she said.

“The loss of revenue to the county and the loss of property taxes due to fires over the past few years has been a huge blow,” she said. “The rebuilding of our resorts can make a big difference.”

Richardson said they’ve started fundraising for the second stage of the project, which includes reconstructing cottages, a health services building, restaurant and other facilities.

However, that phase could take five to eight years to complete and will require generous donations and the use of the organization’s reserves, he said.

“We face a huge financial hurdle,” he said.

He said the Harbin rebuild team hopes next year’s pool area opening will inspire more giving and visits.

“Initially, it will be very simple,” he said. “But when it’s complete, it will be quite attractive.”

For more information about the Harbin Hot Springs reconstruction effort, go to harbin.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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