If you ever phoned Grand Bear in Utica and asked if your kids could play in the water park, you probably were told the water park was for guests only.
Not anymore. Two years after an accidental fire gutted the resort’s pump room, the water park is back up and running and the guests-only rule is being relaxed. The resort’s new owners plan to issue sporadic “pop-up” passes for local kids to splash around at $5 a head.
It’s a different tack than what Grand Bear’s founders put in place 15 years ago. Local families now will be able to enjoy the water park on select days. The restaurant menu will be revamped with family budgets in mind. And Grand Bear wants to have a back-and-forth relationship with the businesses and residents of Utica and neighboring communities.
New, motivated management
“This is a family resort,” asserted Matthew Kosch, vice president of the Sonnenschein Groupe, based in Oakbrook Terrace. “We love having weddings and we love having events, but this is a family water park.”
The Sonnenschein Groupe acquired Grand Bear in July and then quietly set about making fašade improvements to the lodge, landscaping the grounds and, not least, refurbishing the water park. None was an overnight project. The exterior and grounds were in need of a major spruce-up after past owners battled debt and the lodge entered receivership.
Sonnenschein launched into action last summer and Utica’s mayor was among the first to take note. David Stewart met with the new ownership and liked everything he saw and heard.
“Since the Sonnenschein Groupe purchased the Grand Bear Lodge last year, the village has definitely noticed the changes happening,” Stewart said. “We are very happy that the Water Park got back up and running after the fire occurred in January of 2018. The Village looks forward to seeing the additional improvements being made to the Grand Bear Lodge, and we wish them great success.”
Improvements at the resort are by no means finished, but Kosch estimates the water park is about 90% complete. Among the most notable improvements is a giant ceiling fan to circulate fresh air when the waters are being chemically treated. The dumping bucket and flumes are operational again and coming soon are new poolside furnishings and a mezzanine to expand seating.
Above all, Kosch and his partners are paying scrupulous attention to customer feedback, not least through social media.
“We really strive to listen to our guests,” he said. “Our ears are open. We’re listening.”
Rockin’ a new name
And while the signage hasn’t been updated yet, the resort has a new name: Grand Bear Resort at Starved Rock. While guests might not notice many improvements at first blush — Sonnenschein anticipates a two- to three-year overhaul — the common areas, rooms and grounds all will be refurbished with the aim of making past consumer complaints a distant memory.
The former Grand Bear Lodge was by no means a failure. The Village of North Utica collected $1.1 million in pillow taxes from the resort in the first four years of operations alone. Those funds were crucial as the village recovered from a devastating tornado the year before Grand Bear opened in 2005.
Nevertheless, Grand Bear did not fulfill its potential. A combination of inexperienced management and bad timing (the Great Recession hit three years after opening) impeded the founders’ plans to host conventions and business conferences. The resort entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy by 2011 and was in receivership when the fire struck in January 2018.
Enter the Sonnenschein Groupe, which operates hotels and resorts across the world. Sonnenschein holdings are in Austria and the Caribbean islands of Antigua, but it had none in North America. Kosch said Sonnenschein couldn’t resist a family-oriented resort in Chicago’s backyard, and assembled an experienced management team to set about refurbishing the resort.
General manager Bill Peterson said Sonnenschein coaxed him out of retirement — “I was perfectly happy playing with my grandson,” he quipped — but in the next breath said Grand Bear’s unrealized potential was an irresistible selling point.
“This is ready to sprout,” Peterson said. “This is ready to go. And I really feel like I can get my arms around it.”
Sonnenschein is not necessarily adhering to the founders’ original plans. The Enchanted Forest, the former indoor amusement park, remains dormant and was not part of Sonnenschein’s purchase.
“If it becomes available, we would love to acquire it and be a part of that,” Kosch said.
Visitors will eventually notice an outdoor pool and the resumption of outdoor activities such as miniature golf, cookouts and, especially, live entertainment.
And then there is the water park. Kosch said the “pop up” passes admitting local kids won’t be issued every day, but he urged families to watch the website for sporadic water park admission and other locally-oriented events.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.