Tourist town Columbia may lose several attractions

Several businesses in Columbia State Historic Park, including the renowned City Hotel restaurant, will shut down next month unless new operators are found.

The concessionaire for the businesses, Forever Resorts, has served notice that it will withdraw as of June 21. The company declined to renew its contract with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, agency spokeswoman Sheryl Watson said Thursday.

The move will put 28 people out of work, she said. It also will leave the park without some of its attractions just as tourist season is peaking.

"This is bad news for Columbia, but we would like the public to know we are still going on with our events," said Leslie Davis, event coordinator for the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

A spokeswoman at Forever Resorts, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., could not be reached for comment. The company's Columbia-based management declined to comment.

The contract covers the City Hotel's lodgings, restaurant and saloon; the Jenny Lind Restaurant, formerly the Columbia House; and the Fallon Hotel's lodgings, ice cream parlor and theater.

Sierra Repertory Theatre, based in east Sonora, stages some of its plays at the Fallon theater as a subcontractor. Managing Director Sara Jones said it is in talks with park management about continuing past June 21.

"Obviously, the situation is very unfortunate," she said. "We hope that the state park is able to resolve the impasse."

The two hotels provide just a few rooms for tourists, who can find plenty of lodgings in other parts of Columbia and Tuolumne County. The City Hotel restaurant, however, is regarded as one of the county's finest.

"It's all part of the draw," said Floyd Oydegaard, the concessionaire at Columbia Booksellers & Stationers. Having lodging within the park is an advantage, he said.

How long it will take to reopen the businesses is not known, Watson said.

"We would consider other alternatives," she said. "In fact, we are entertaining inquiries from other businesses."

The park, established in 1945 to commemorate the Gold Rush nearly a century earlier, has about 20 concessionaires in the old buildings lining the streets.

The City Hotel dates to the mid-1850s and has had sev- eral expansions and renovations. The Fallon Hotel was built in 1859, and the theater was added in 1886.

No bidders for contract

Forever Resorts has been a concessionaire since 2006. Its contract expired earlier this year, but it has continued on a month-to-month agreement. A new 20-year contract drew no bidders.

Figures included in the bidders packet show declining income from food, drink and lodging at the City Hotel. It grossed $1.26 million in the 2003-04 fiscal year but only $909,414 in 2007-08. The Jenny Lind Restaurant went from $256,995 to $157,633.

The bidders on the new contract would have to pay at least $25,000 a year in rent for all of the operations. They also would have to make at least $250,000 worth of improvements, including two new showers in the City Hotel and a disabled-accessible restroom in the Fallon theater.

Bidders will be judged on factors such as their business experience and plans for the park sites.

The parks department could change the terms of the contract and seek new bidders, which would take three to six months, said Vince Sereno, superintendent of the sector that includes Columbia. It also could sign up operators to take over Forever Resorts' month-to-month deal immediately, he said.

The park draws about half a million people each year. Admission is free, but visitors pay for food, drink, souvenirs, stagecoach rides, gold panning and other activities.

The park plays host to several annual events, including Fourth of July and Admission Day celebrations in summer. Davis, of the chamber, said the events can go on without the Forever Resorts presence.

"It is a lot of businesses (closing) in the park," she said, "but there are still a lot left."Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.