Big hotel project has its doubters

BIG OAK FLAT -- This tiny town on the way to Yosemite National Park could get two large hotels, an indoor water park, an IMAX theater and other attractions.

The project, planned for a long-barren site on Highway 120 that local residents refer to as "the scar," would be the biggest commercial development in southern Tuolumne County.

The plans have been discussed for several years and reached a milestone this month with the launch of an environmental study.

Developer Morgan Burkett said the highway, one of three major routes into the park, is ripe for the $60 million project.

"If you look at the traffic flow that's Yosemite-related, the highest traffic flow is on 120 but it has the least amount of services," he said.

The project site is about 25 miles west of the park entrance.

The project, which also features a conference center, bowling alley and retail space, could start to rise in mid-2011 if the county approves it, Burkett said.

It could be completed by late 2012, when the economy is likely to be running strong, he said.

The complex would employ 150 to 200 people, he said.

Burkett, who lives in San Luis Obispo County and is president of Legacy Hospitality, is among several developers who have tried to make something of the 38-acre site.

They first cleared the dense oak trees in the late 1980s but did not build anything. A couple of other plans came and went.

The 300 to 400 hotel rooms in the latest project would be far more than any other lodging business along 120.

Peggy Mosley, owner of the 17-room Groveland Hotel to the east, said she does not think the corridor has enough traffic to justify the proposed lodging.

"Maybe they've got some incredible marketing plan that we haven't heard of that would be good for everybody," she said.

John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, cast doubt on the project.

"There just isn't any economic logic in placing a massive services-centered development in a small community with very small numbers of potential customers," he said.

Buckley said the area lacks the sewer capacity needed for such a project.

That will be among the issues to be covered in the environmental impact report, county planner Elaine Hails said. Others include traffic, water, fire safety, wildlife and scenery.

The developer would pay for improvements, such as widening the highway or installing water tanks.

Burkett said the project is complex but nonetheless worthwhile. He cited demand for conference space that is cheaper than in Monterey, San Francisco, Napa or Lake Tahoe.

"Our belief is there is a really fertile market for destination conference business, where you're getting up and out of the valley," he said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.