Another summer without Lost Isle
By Michael Fitzgerald
April 19, 2013 - 12:00 AM
For the fourth year, Lost Isle, a resort crucial to the Delta economy, will not reopen for the summer season. The owner blames a cool economy and red tape.
Owner Dave Wheeler said he battled through a bureaucratic obstacle course and was cleared last fall to rebuild the popular resort on Acker Island along the Deep Water Channel west of Stockton.
Too late for this season.
"We didn't think winter would be enough time to get the job done," Wheeler said.
The slow economy also suggested waiting, Wheeler said. "We want to reopen on an upswing, not a downswing."
Now, though, "The Bay Area economy has heated up, and largely based on that, we've decided to go ahead and be open for early '14," he said.
Three-quarters of Lost Isle's business comes from the Bay Area, Wheeler said.
Lost Isle Bar and Resort drew about 50,000 people per season for party-hearty recreation in a funky tiki setting reachable only by boat. Authorities sometimes frowned, but the resort was a major Delta economic engine.
Wheeler said a market study showed that, for every $1 boaters spent at Lost Isle, they spent as much as $18 in the Delta at places such as gas docks, hotels, cafes, boat ramps and bait shops.
That figure may be high, said Bill Wells, executive director of the California Delta Chambers and Visitors Bureau. But there's no doubt Lost Isle was the Delta's rainmaker.
"I get inquiries from all over the United States about Lost Isle," Wells said. "Definitely, Lost Isle generated income for many facets of the economy around the Delta."
After a 2008 killing on the island, San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore demanded Lost Isle greatly increase security with a helipad and other precautions.
Simultaneously, other county agencies ordered Lost Isle to replace its sewer system. Wheeler closed for a major remodel.
It is now clear that any agency that orders a Delta resort to renovate subjects it to a glacial gantlet of other government bureaucracies so numerous and costly that "business-unfriendly" doesn't begin to describe them.
In all, about 40 agencies piled on Lost Isle: San Joaquin County planning, building, fire, flood control, and environmental health, three teams of biologists, the ABC, the Delta Protection Commission, reclamation districts, Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service - all without coordination.
If California is business unfriendly, the Delta is business sadistic.
Wheeler has spent $250,000 a year for four years with no return on investment. Not one in 1,000 entrepreneurs could do that and not go under.
He estimates he has lost $1.2 million to $1.7 million in revenue per year. He further estimates he will spend $2 million rebuilding the bar/restaurant, docks and sewer but spend an additional $2 million on permit-related costs.
That is exactly why the Delta, for all its charms, is in some respects a floating trailer park. And a rebuke to San Joaquin leaders who do not champion reform.
"Do you really expect everybody building things in the Delta to spend 50 percent on permitting and 50 on construction?" Wheeler asked. "That's just ridiculous. And, of course, the length of time is phenomenal."
The length of time is not four years, by the way. Wheeler said he started applying for permits to remodel the restaurant when he bought the resort in 1996.
He concedes that in some years he did not progress because of cash flow problems, not bureaucracy. With a business environment like this, Carlos Slim would have cash flow problems, even if he could counterfeit pesos.
"It's been 16 years," Wheeler said. "In hindsight I look back and I just cannot believe it took this long."
The target date for reopening Lost Isle is May 1, 2014.
Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or email@example.com. Visit his blog at www.recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog.