Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

As state moves forward with new Hot Springs operator, Star Plunge family cries foul

A boy swims in the Star Plunge in May 2024. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Star Plunge owner Roland Luehne stands in front of historic signs decorating a wall at the aquatic facility. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

In a state where generations of families grew up visiting the pools, the issue has touched off debates pitting nostalgia and local-business values against modernity and outsider ideas.

By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile.com

HOT SPRINGS STATE PARK-The tang of sulfur drifted from mineral springs along the Bighorn River to the Star Plunge aquatic center. A handful of swimmers bobbed under the sun in the blue-green water of the outdoor pool. Inside, an aging slide adorned with blue waves snaked down to a second pool. Beams of sunshine pierced through the ceiling windows, casting rectangles of light on the water's surface and the constellation of flags hanging over it.

A fortune-telling arcade game barked appeals from the nearby lobby, where visitors checked in at the front counter before heading to locker rooms. Owner Roland Luehne sat at a table, a tan chihuahua named Lilly at his feet, sifting through boxes of paperwork accumulated during his family's nearly 50-year concessionaire arrangement with Wyoming State Parks.

Luehne has worked here since 1975, the year his parents bought the facility. His first job was as slide attendant for the Screaming Mimi - a terrifying-looking contraption that entailed riding a small wooden sled down to a pool. That's since been replaced, one of many upgrades Luehne said his family made to the Star Plunge over the last half-century.

The state's April announcement that it selected a new concessionaire for the park's hotel and aquatic facilities, including the Star Plunge, represents a severing of the Luehne family's long-standing relationship with Wyoming State Parks and a new chapter for a Wyoming institution that's entwined with their identity. As Luehne went through the boxes, recalling decades of running the pool, he described what has happened with the state as a "nightmare."

State Parks defends its process as transparent, above board and in the best interests of the community and state. As the gem of the state park system, it's time to update the aging infrastructure to meet modern demands, the state says.

But news of a new operator - which promises major upgrades in a park where facilities haven't changed much in decades - has sparked outrage from Luehne and loyal Star Plunge patrons who fret the new management, Wyoming Hot Springs LLC, will bring higher costs and sensibilities that are out-of-touch with its clientele.

In sleepy Thermopolis, which relies heavily on the park as an economic engine, reactions run hot, cold and in between. Some see the change as a way to boost the community's profile and diversify its economy. Others believe it will Disney-fy the beloved park.

Across a state and region where generations of families have grown up visiting the pools, the issue has also touched off debates pitting nostalgia and local-business values against modernity and the ideas outsiders bring in.

Luehne maintains State Parks has been operating in ways to effectively dislodge him from the helm. The state alleges he has been the party unwilling to cooperate.

"It's our job to look out for the best interests of the state," Outdoor Recreation Office and Division of State Parks Deputy Director Nick Neylon said. "We are genuinely trying to make [the park] better for the people of Wyoming, for the people of Hot Springs County and Thermopolis."

Between the costs involved in drafting and submitting applications in response to the state's last two requests for concessionaire proposals, Luehne said, "we're in over $100,000. And that's 100,000 reasons why I want to be here. That's all we've been trying to do for 50 years is to be here. It's our life."

Luehne got up and walked toward historic signs hung near the front door, his dog trailing him. A couple interrupted to ask where they could sign the petition opposing state action. He pointed them to a sheet of paper.

Whether their signatures will have any bearing on the outcome in Hot Springs State Park, however, is an open question.

Reaching its potential

On a May day when snow flurries lashed other parts of Wyoming, the sun shone benevolently on Hot Springs State Park, where trees were leafing out. Though midweek, the park was busy. People walked their dogs near the river or strolled the boardwalks over the mineral terraces. Two Green River school buses disgorged students to swarm the playground, and fishermen bobbed down the river in a drift boat.

To the southwest, where the 1,100-acre park opens into undeveloped sagelands and six miles of hiking trails snake along ridges, the park's bison herd huddled in a sage flat, shielding a brand-new calf.

Hot Springs is a far cry from the wilderness experience more recognizable at state parks like Curt Gowdy or Sinks Canyon. The park's eponymous springs were long ago developed into indoor and outdoor pools with steam rooms and slides, while parking lots and paved roads encircle the grounds. Two hotels occupy its boundaries, and it hosts an assortment of built infrastructure, including a hospital, county library, fairgrounds and schools.

These factors make it a constant draw for locals and visitors; Hot Springs tallies more than 1.5 million annual visits, more than double any other in Wyoming's system. And in a state with no permanent amusement parks, Hot Springs' two aquatic facilities - Star Plunge and Tepee - have long drawn families with kids.

As landlord, Wyoming holds lease agreements with park operators. That includes the Star Plunge, Tepee and two hotels. Wyoming also operates a state bathhouse, which is free and open to the public - a stipulation required by Native American tribes that ceded the land.

As dense and eye-glazing as they may be, those agreements, along with a 2016 park master plan, are pivotal to the changes coming toward the park. Of the four concessionaires, Star Plunge and Hot Springs Hotel currently operate under short-term management agreements rather than long-term leases. State Parks no longer wants to do that, and a 2019 law mandates that it secure the long-term arrangements.

In 2020, Wyoming put out a request for proposals for parties interested in operating new or improved lodging and aquatic facilities in the park. The idea was to secure long-term leases that support the Hot Springs State Park Master Plan, which envisions a more polished destination with modern recreation offerings.

"Today, some concessionaire operated facilities are deteriorated with extensive need for improvement and redevelopment," it reads. "This plan encourages reinvestment in public and private facilities, replacing outdated features to prioritize life, health and safety; and offers opportunities for collaborative partnerships to meet the Division's key mission of public benefit, resource protection, and high‐quality visitor experiences."

Luehne was the sole applicant in that initial round, but he and the state failed to reach an agreement. He was one of three applicants in round two, which opened in November. This time, the state opted for another applicant, Wyoming Hot Springs LLC.

That company's bid proposes transforming Tepee into a spa and wellness center while enhancing facilities and the mid-century character of the Star Plunge with new slides, pools and a poolside diner. It proposes rebuilding or renovating the Hot Springs Hotel with more rooms and upgraded dining areas. There are mentions of trails, a drive-in theater, glamping facilities and a brew pub.

Upgrades will soon begin to the Tepee, according to State Parks. The Star Plunge and 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 take over.

Star Plunge's management agreement expires first, at the end of 2024.

Wyoming Hot Springs LLC operates hot springs resorts in three locations across Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming - including, as of November, Tepee Pools. Management did not respond to WyoFile requests for interviews.

Cures what ails you

With stately cottonwood trees, river access and mineral waters, the park is an undeniably special place. People have recognized that for centuries, and though many today speak of the difficulty of change, Hot Springs State Park has gone through a dizzying array of iterations.

Native Americans prized the main source of heated water, the Big Spring - which was known as Bah Guewana, or "smoking waters" - and visited long before white settlers discovered it. The original 1-square-mile park land was established through a treaty between the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes and the U.S. government. The feds purchased the land in 1896, and ceded the "Big Horn Reserve" to the state in 1897 on the stipulation that there always be free public access to the waters. It operated as a reserve for more than three decades before becoming Hot Springs State Park.

During the early years, there was a bit of a bonanza as white settlers built infrastructure and attempted various money-making enterprises at the springs. People chipped "tubs" into the mineral deposits for soaking; bottled the mineral water for a healing drink; opened swimming facilities and built apartment buildings, hotels and sanitariums. One Meeteetse entrepreneur attempted to generate electricity from the springs with a 4,000-pound waterwheel, but the mineral build up quickly shut that down.

A community sprouted nearby that would eventually become Thermopolis, Greek for "Hot City." In the state park, meanwhile, there was at various times a Carnegie Library, zoo, dance pavilion and drive-in theater.

Where Guernsey State Park has 250 campsites, Hot Springs has zero. Inside its borders, a hospital ministers to patients, a fairgrounds hosts events and county workers staff offices. A residential neighborhood butts up to the park's north boundary.

But an emphasis on the wild side is growing. There are new trails for hiking and biking, and the 2016 master plan calls for more. The plan uses the word "natural" 221 times. It also hints at camping opportunities and other recreation amenities.

"Room for expansion and diversity of offerings for both lodging and aquatics is needed to address growing therapeutic and recreational needs and changing demographics," it reads.

The family business

Early users called the hot springs pools "plunges." Based on the history Luehne has learned, someone first dubbed a pool the "Star Plunge" in 1846, inspired by the shape of a nearby rock, and it's been established as a swimming facility since before 1900.

Roland Luehne's parents, Wolfgang and Christine, bought the Star Plunge - by then an established aquatic center - decades later in 1975, taking over a 50-year lease from the previous owner.

According to family lore, the Luehnes packed their five kids up for a trip to Yellowstone in 1972, but got lost on the way from Denver and ended up camping in Hot Springs State Park. They discovered the swimming pool and had a great time. They returned for a couple years before Wolfgang discovered the Star Plunge was for sale.

Luehne's parents sold their house in Denver and moved to Thermopolis, where the entire clan went to work in their new facility. His father put a roof over the pools, which he said was a game changer that extended the season. Wolfgang later blasted out the vapor cave - a small steam box for heat lovers - and built a hot tub.

In 1982, the Luehnes built the state's first water slide. The Big Slide still exists 42 years on, as do the indoor tube slide, built in 1987, and an outdoor baby slide, built in 1989. The facility retains a kitschy, Route-66-era vibe and has fans who visit loyally, but senescence has set in. The slides have faded, mineral deposits have streaked surfaces and dust clings to fake plants hanging over the indoor pool.

The corrosive nature of the water makes maintenance very difficult, Luehne said, but they are constantly replacing parts, remodeling showers and keeping things in good order. His family has poured a great deal of effort and money into making the place special, he said. "We try to go the extra mile."

Loyal soakers

Thermopolis resident Kathy Gregory has a good routine going. Five days a week, she wakes, looks out at the mountains in her backyard and then goes to the Star Plunge with her husband.

There, she exercises in the pool, then soaks in the hot tubs and steam rooms before hitting the showers. "It is just a perfect set up for us," she said.

It's also a sweet deal for the Gregorys, who retired to Thermopolis in 2020. They pay $150 each for annual memberships, which breaks down into very small daily costs.

Gregory is dismayed about the new operator, she said.

"Coming from California, we have seen this happen over and over and over again," she said, "where small businesses are being shut down and taken over by a corporation."

In her experience, that process often comes with government promises that get broken.

"Our town does need to grow, we're not disputing that, the park needs help, we're not disputing that," Gregory said. "But why an outside corporation, taking it away from a local business person?"

She doesn't understand why the state can't work with Luehne to make his facility even better, she said.

Janet Henshaw, who visits the Star Plunge regularly from Riverton with her son, a veteran, said they both derive crucial therapeutic benefits from the springs. She disputes the characterization that the facility is outdated.

"It is a place that is comfortable. It's always clean," she said. After visiting hot springs all over, she believes "it's probably one of the best family oriented environments I've ever been to."

There's another thing. The Luehnes care about their customers, she said. Her neighbor once fell and broke several bones, and she helped take him to the Star Plunge after he was released from the hospital.

"When [the Star Plunge staff] found out that we were bringing him, they greeted him at the truck with a wheelchair," Henshaw said. "They took so much care in getting him into the pool and giving him the ability to get that healing benefit. We were blown away."

Concerns have also been raised about the state not sticking to its treaty promises to keep the hot springs open to the public. New operators won't have a bearing on the free access at the state bathhouse, according to State Parks. The state consulted with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes during the master planning process, Neylon said.

Word on the street

In Thermopolis' tiny downtown, you can find a Carhartt shop, a brewery, a taxidermist, cafes, a quilt shop and several empty storefronts. Pocket parks and benches are readily available, a dinosaur statue pays homage to the area's rich paleontologic history and free wifi feels like an inviting gesture for visitors.

Inside Town Hall, Thermopolis Mayor Adam Estenson was conducting office hours before heading to his day job at Ryan Bros. Trucking.

Estenson isn't on Facebook, but he is aware of the online furor over the park's future. He's also been trying to gauge conversations on street corners and in the hardware store.

"What I realized pretty quickly by actually going out and engaging the community is that the people that are talking about it on Facebook, they represent their opinion, but they don't represent the whole," Estenson said.

People he's spoken to are happy the state has taken an interest in Thermopolis and ultimately want what's best for the park, he said. "We all identify that the park is, you know, a lifeblood around here," Estenson said. "It's beyond even that, really. It's an identity."

Because the park is state property, "we as the town council feel that it is of the utmost importance that we are in a good relationship with the state, and that we are at the table as a stakeholder," he said. The council's role is to advocate for locals, he added, and that will entail insisting park facilities remain affordable and fit the town aesthetically. The Town Council signed and unanimously approved a letter supporting the recent request for proposal.

Estenson understands the Luehnes' business interest, he says; his grandparents started the Thermopolis trucking company in the late '50s that he works for today.

But he also ran for mayor in part because he feels the town has potential for growth. "And whether we want it or not, that's where the world is going," he said. "People are leaving urban cores. They're looking for places like Thermopolis."

If the town can continue to diversify its offerings, Estenson said, "now you get people coming and not just staying for a day on their way to Yellowstone, but they come and they stay for a couple of days."

Negotiations gone sour

Luehne bought the Star Plunge from his parents in 2012. Since their long-term lease with the state expired in 2008, he has been operating on short-term management agreements.

As he walked through the facility, he talked about how the caustic nature of the mineral water makes it very difficult to keep it looking clean and updated.

"You can go into our dressing rooms, and you will see a brand new urinal that's 3 months old, and you would swear it was 20 years old because it's all corroded," he said.

Despite that, he said, he has worked to increase accessibility, give the place aesthetic character, update features and complete the state's demands. Today, his daughter, Taylor Sweeney, is the facility manager.

He stood outside with Taylor looking at the Big Slide.

"This used to be all just dirt and weeds ... and we've landscaped it," he said, gesturing around. "They state told us, 'You need to do this,' and we did. Everything they've asked us to do, we've done."

The state does not agree with that assessment.

"If Mr. Luehne had addressed all the issues we brought forward immediately over the years, and had attempted to negotiate in good faith with us on a lease ... he could have been in the midst of a 25-year lease right now," Neylon said. "But he chose not to."

The agency has attempted to negotiate based on the provisions in the long-term lease Wolfgang and Christine Luehne signed when they took over the facility, Neylon said. That lease "spells out exactly what they are entitled to."

When they bought the Star Plunge from Scott and Ercil Taylor, for $116,00, they took over a 50-year lease that dates back to 1958. According to that document, "lessees do hereby agree that they will at their own cost during the full term of this lease, keep and maintain the building or buildings thereon, or hereafter erected, and all fixtures and additions thereto, in good and substantial order and repair ... that they will also at their own cost keep up and maintain the grounds herein leased ... in conformity with the landscape plans and specifications adopted by the state ... and pay and discharge, as they may become due and payable, all claims for materials furnished or services rendered upon or concerning said property or the improvements thereon."

At the end of the lease, according to the contract, the lessee has 60 days to remove personal property, but the state owns the land.

No business person would agree to terms the state has offered, Luehne said, which leave the operator with nothing to show for decades of work.

The operator can be compensated by selling improvements and assets to the new operator, Neylon said. "They are welcome to try to negotiate and sell to the person who's going to be the new operator."

Luehne claims he has satisfied all the deferred maintenance needs the state has demanded. He and Neylon both say they expect potential litigation.

A tale of two futures

"I just want everyone to keep in mind that the plan was not created in a vacuum and it included a lot of community outreach and input," Wyoming State Parks Bighorn Region District Manager Brooks Jordan told Hot Springs County commissioners during a presentation shortly after the state announced the new operator.

The impetus behind requesting new proposals, Jordan said, was to facilitate an "all-encompassing vision for the future of the park.

"We don't see drastic changes happening for that facility," he said of Star Plunge. "We are just making sure that health and safety concerns are addressed. Critical deferred maintenance items that have gone for years and years unaddressed, we want to make sure those are taken care of."

Ultimately, he said, the state wants "to make it a place that we can all be proud of and that we all enjoy." That will entail incorporating more community input into the process and ensuring affordability.

Commissioners gave Jordan a warm reception.

"It's the state's state park, we pretend sometimes that it's Thermopolis' state park," Commissioner Phillip Steel said to chuckles. "We're right on the precipice of amazing things happening at the state park. I'm super excited for the opportunity we have there."

That support goes beyond board rooms, Neylon said. "We firmly believe that the tide has turned in Thermopolis and there are far more people who are behind what we're doing than people who oppose us."

But back in the Star Plunge, Luehne told a different story.

"People are scared, they are angry, they are upset," he said. "It's going to change Thermopolis completely."

Nobody involved pretends the situation is fun for Luehne and his family. But is there an outcome that could satisfy him? He paused to think about it.

"The one thing that would satisfy me is if the state would just be fair ... replacement value would be fair." He declined to offer a figure, but reiterated that he has plenty of support for that outcome.

"We have thousands and thousands and thousands of signatures of people saying, 'Stop what you're doing,'" Luehne said.

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This story was posted on June 21, 2024.

 
 
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