Sometime in April, Diamond Resorts will likely take over ILX Resorts, including their Kohl’s Ranch property. The company that has long been cursed by locals for a series of bonehead moves, most notably tearing down the old “Cowboy Bar” which was the original lodge, will be no more. I thought it might be a nice opportunity to look back on things, make some suggestions, and try to get locals to turn a page. After all, we will no longer have ILX to kick around anymore.
Kohl’s Ranch originally consisted of a main structure at the northeast end of the current property. It was said to be the remnants of the Tonto-Horton schoolhouse and was a main dance hall in the region. The current main lodge of Kohl’s Ranch was not built until the early 1960s at which time the original structure was utilized in a variety of ways, including as the Cowboy Bar in its later years.
In 2002 ILX did what locals considered to be the unthinkable: they razed the historic Cowboy Bar, which was long the social center in the area. From the start, it was clear to many locals that ILX wasn’t being completely forthcoming: a capital sin in these parts. According to a Jan. 10, 2002 Payson Roundup article, “the structure was razed just 10 days after Kohl’s Ranch manager Dan Albright told the Roundup there were no current plans to tear it down. On the contrary, ILX Chairman Joseph Martori said the project had been “on the drawing board for 60 days.”
ILX and the management at the time of Kohl’s Ranch (which is far different from today), tried to spin things the best they could. They were actually “preserving history” with their new great “Horton House” a residential timeshare that replaced it. Many locals smelt the other end of the bull, vowing not to go back to Kohl’s ever again. This was something that seemed just fine to the management at the time — the sense around was that locals were welcome to work there, but really weren’t part of the “Sedona experience” that ILX was trying to bring to Kohl’s and to Rim Country.
First, let’s look at what that company should have done. Companies are in business to maximize profit and clearly there was a need to do more with that structure, notwithstanding its influence on the Kohl’s experience, whose biggest potential strength lies in the flavor that locals brought. A popular catchphrase for this now is “civic tourism.”
A two-story restaurant, with a private dining room on top for private parties, probably would’ve been the best move in my view. I understand that maintenance costs on the place were probably getting to be pretty heavy, hence the need to rebuild. I think there were a lot more pieces that could have been reused from that place than ILX used in building the Horton House. I know lots of locals who have pieces of that building, which were readily available because ILX didn’t want them.
I would’ve kept the layout somewhat similar, but enlarging the main space by going into the unused space on the right end of the building. I’d have created a tremendous patio: dinner on the creek, an experience like no other at Kohl’s Ranch, would have been the emphasis. The live music area would’ve been kept in the new building, with the private room up top having an opening to it, but also formed in a fashion so that it could be closed off if the folks didn’t want to hear the music. This also would’ve created additional space for when the room wasn’t rented out. The live music area at the Cowboy Bar was the best up here. It was a great dance floor and it stayed with the spirit and tradition of this area. It was the kind of place you could “party all night” — which was in the tradition of the all-night schoolhouse dances long held in this area. It would have been a draw.
What did the Cowboy Bar mean to that place? It was the heart and soul of it; an intangible factor that in and of itself may not have looked good on the balance sheet, but brought a special something to the entire property.
The few times I’ve gone to Kohl’s Ranch on a Saturday night for dinner, it saddens me to see the place. It’s dead, and when I was a kid, it was packed — with a 30- to 45-minute wait. The entire property had a spirit about it back in the day and it emanated from the Cowboy Bar. My parents and I would have dinner and then go to the Cowboy Bar where they’d have a drink and maybe I’d shoot pool with a friend.
You would take company there on the weekends to listen to the live music. There was a side video game room that was pretty good for the kids, so that we could have fun while our parents danced to the music. The place as a whole was a bit dumpy in its later years, but it had character and that’s what people come up here for.
We’re never going to be Sedona.
Development after development here has tried that and suffered. People come up here for the recreation, the hiking, the fishing, and most of all, the tall pines. They don’t want a faux experience created by a corporation; they want the experience created by Mother Nature.
We are but guides in that process. I do it all the time as a Realtor and embrace the role. I tell them about the hike I just did or where I’ve done some rock hunting.
At the end of the day you go back to wherever you’ve been staying: whether it be your own place, a friend’s second place, or a resort like Kohl’s. You clean up a bit, have a nice meal and a stiff drink, and maybe you look to do some dancing and/or shoot some pool. You mix it up with the various colorful characters that are here. That is the essence of this area, particularly once you get out toward Tonto Village and Christopher Creek.
Now I want to say something to locals. We need to draw the line on our dislike of what ILX did. I know folks who work at Kohl’s now. I like them. I think their current GM has a clue, but when you inherit a mess; a mess that still has some of those same people above you, it’s nearly impossible to make changes as quickly as you’d like. There is a lot of stripping down and building back up that’s going to have to occur at Kohl’s. It will likely take a decade or more in my opinion. With luck, they’ll eventually be successful enough to put some serious money into the Horton House and change it into a restaurant. That would be the highest hope in my view. But Kohl’s can be a positive factor in this area. Giving them the cold shoulder is not good for anybody. The staff and employees are our neighbors and often our friends. We should want to see them succeed. Ignoring them, bad-mouthing them, it’s not the right thing.
On the other hand, I have some advice for the new owners, Diamond Resorts, and the current management team.
I remember an old baseball story that I particularly like. It was about an old manager named Birdie Tebbetts who was quite a character and was succeeded by Bobby Bragan as manager of the Milwaukee Braves in 1963. When Bragan opened a drawer of his seemingly empty desk he came across two numbered envelopes. They said “open in case of emergency.” He let them be, knowing what a sage Tebbetts was. About a year or so into his time as manager, he came under pressure for his team’s performance and felt it was time to open envelope number one. It said: “Blame it on me and the old guys. Birdie.” So Bragan went out and said how he couldn’t win with Birdie’s guys. Sure enough, the heat subsided. Of course, a couple years later he was in trouble again when he opened envelope number two. It started, “prepare two envelopes …”
I think the management at Kohl’s has had to run from the past instead of figuring out how to embrace it and acknowledging the mistake. Current management should apologize and acknowledge the mistake that was made. Hear the locals out. Embrace them. Understand this isn’t just another place like so many of your other timeshares. Do what it takes to bring that local flavor back. It’ll take time and it won’t be an easy process, but I think it will be worth it.
And one other thing I’d strongly suggest: push the Forest Service to make Indian Gardens a public campground. Even campers like to get a good meal and it would open another revenue stream being so close. Besides which, as beautiful as that spot is it really should be enjoyed by the public and you might win some trust back with the locals by pushing for it.