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New operator, big changes chosen for Thermopolis’ Star Plunge, Tepee Pools

Wyoming Hot Springs LLC proposal for Hot Springs State Park entails a new spa and wellness center, more lodging, upgrades to slides and additional water facilities. Star Plunge owner calls decision ‘heartbreaking.’

The Star Plunge was originally established as a wooden structure sometime between the 1890s and early 1900s, according to the Hot Springs Master Plan. Staff members say it was established even earlier. (Jasperdo/FlickrCC)

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

Major renovations are in store for Hot Springs State Park after Wyoming State Parks selected a new concessionaire for hotel and aquatic facilities that have remained largely unchanged for decades. 

Wyoming State Parks announced Monday that it has selected Wyoming Hot Springs LLC through its recent request for proposal process. The corporation currently operates hot springs resorts in three locations across Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming — including, as of November, Tepee Pools in Hot Springs State Park.

The mineral-rich waters on the edge of Thermopolis have drawn human visitors for centuries, and Hot Springs State Park remains Wyoming’s most-visited state park to this day. Facilities haven’t changed much in generations, however, and Wyoming State Parks leaders contend that with some polishing up, the park can become an even bigger draw and economic engine. 

“This partnership offers an opportunity to create the best visitor experience in Wyoming, and to have a tremendous economic impact in the community and across the region,” Wyoming State Parks Deputy Director Nick Neylon said in the release.

Upgrades will soon begin to the Tepee Pools, according to a state press release, and a full reconstruction to transform the facility into a spa and wellness center is proposed for the future. The Star Plunge and Days Inn Hot Springs Hotel, meanwhile, will continue to operate under existing management through the conclusion of their current contracts, at which time Wyoming Hot Springs LLC will begin remodeling or reconstruction of both facilities. Star Plunge’s management agreement expires first, at the end of 2024.

Star Plunge owner Roland Luehne, whose family has operated the aquatic facility for 49 years, feels the state is wrongly pushing out a local business.

“This is just heartbreaking,” Luehne said Monday after hearing the news. “My family and I poured [our] life into Star Plunge. And our facility is the No. 1 attraction in the area, and it’s the No. 1 attraction for the way that we’ve been running it.” 

Hot Springs State Park is seen from across the Bighorn River. The dome of the Tepee Pools is visible to the right. The Star Plunge is to its left, but unseen in this photograph. Concessionaires have operated both through lease or management agreements with Wyoming for decades. (Jasperdo/FlickrCC)

Luehne launched an online petition to “Save Star Plunge” that has collected nearly 12,000 signatures, and many spoke in support of his enterprise at a recent public meeting on the matter. 

The state’s process has opened debate about how Wyoming should guide development of its attractions in a way that balances state values. While some say updates to the park’s facilities are overdue, others argue Wyoming risks ruining the community with out-of-touch plans at the expense of a local business. 

Background

In the 1,100-acre state park, patrons can brave water slides or splash around pools at two aquatic facilities, soak in a public bathhouse, amble along boardwalks, view a bison herd or stay in one of two hotels. 

Concessionaires offer services at privately owned facilities: the Star Plunge and Tepee aquatic centers and Plaza Best Western and Days Inn Hot Springs hotels.

Because Star Plunge and Days Inn Hot Springs have been operated under soon-to-expire management agreements, Wyoming requested proposals in November from parties interested in constructing, operating and maintaining new or improved lodging and aquatic facilities within the park. 

The idea was to secure long-term management leases that support the 2016 Hot Springs State Park Master Plan, which sets out a vision for a premier destination. 

Swimmers in the outdoor pool at the Star Plunge in Thermopolis. (Courtesy Star Plunge)

The state received three bids. The winning bid proposes transforming Tepee into a spa and wellness center in a full reconstruction while enhancing family facilities and the mid-century character of the Star Plunge with new slides, pools and a poolside diner; rebuilding or renovating the hotel to take advantage of the river area with upgraded dining and large riverfront sitting areas. Potential other offerings include nature trails, a drive-in theater, glamping facilities and a brew pub. 

Those proposals spurred outcry at a recent meeting on the matter, with Star Plunge supporters questioning the state’s right to expel Luehne, asking if it will compensate him and suggesting litigation. Others defended Luehne for work he’s put into the facility and warned of Star Plunge losing its charm and affordability with a new owner. 

Wyoming Hot Springs LLC’s primary representative, Mark Begich, is a former U.S. senator from Alaska who has been involved in travel, tourism and redevelopment enterprises.

In the state release, Hot Springs County Board of Commissioners Chairman Thomas J. Ryan said the bid represents a good project for his county. 

“We believe that this project, when completed, will enhance the core business area of Thermopolis and Hot Springs County, existing area tourist attractions, and have a beneficial effect on the economy of the State of Wyoming as a whole,” Ryan said. 


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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