Chris Johnston and his father, Jim, walk the docks at Howard Prairie Resort. The Johnston family has operated the resort for 47 years and is selling its operator’s license to a Greensprings couple. Jim Craven 5/24/2007 - Jim Craven

Johnston family prepares for sale of Howard Prairie Resort

Like his father and grandfather before him, Chris Johnston has dripped buckets of sweat during years of pampering every one of the thousands of summer visitors who fish, sail or camp at Howard Prairie Resort.

Selling worms. Helping rookie campers set up tents. On-the-dock boating lessons. Dispensing angling tips. Even backing up trucks and trailers for the boat ramp-challenged.

These are just a few of the duties members of the Johnston family have covered in 47 years as outdoor concierges at one of Jackson County's most popular watery playgrounds.

"Some days are tough, but look where you work," said Johnston, 42, as he watched four pelicans frolic near the marina dock. "It's a pretty good office. A pretty good view."

That office and view are about to change for Johnston, whose family is selling control of the resort it helped create and mold into what county officials call a model for operating a recreation concession.

The family is in the process of selling the concessionaire contract — the agreement with the county to operate the resort — to a Greensprings couple who pledge to follow the Johnstons' visitor-first credo.

In the process, the family that started with a half-filled lake and not a single building in 1960 is leaving a lifestyle that has served more than a dozen Johnstons over the decades.

Jim Johnston, Chris' father, hasn't spent a summer away from the resort since the beginning. Chris Johnston grew up there. They are synonymous with Howard Prairie.

"It's not just selling the business," said Jim Johnston, 65. "It's my whole social structure. I know thousands of people very well, and now I even know their kids.

"But we've had a good run," he said. "It's time to get somebody up here with some new ideas and some years left in them.

Those somebodies are Joel and Holly LaGrande, hand-picked by the Johnstons from what they said were a half-dozen offers annually.

The LaGrandes, who sold businesses in Minneapolis and moved to the Greensprings in 2004, are wrapping up their financing for the deal — the price was not disclosed. Both parties expect the sale to be finalized in June.

The sale is for the right to run the operation at Howard Prairie, east of Ashland, but it involves few real assets other than rental boats, restaurant equipment and other items.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which created the lake, owns the property. Jackson County, which has a lease agreement with the bureau to provide recreation there, owns the buildings and campsites and has contracted with the Johnstons to operate the facilities since they were first offered in 1959.

Both the bureau and the county Board of Commissioners must accept the sale, which will be for operation rights through the remainder of the year, said Randy Hutton, the county's parks program manager.

The county and the LaGrandes will negotiate new terms for 2008 and beyond, Hutton said.

The current contract, set to expire in December, calls for a 10-year deal with two 10-year extensions upon both parties' consent, Hutton said.

County officials expect no problems in the transition, just like they've had with the Johnstons during this long partnership.

"The Johnstons are a model for how we'd like to see concessionaires work," county Counsel Doug McGeary said. "They've put a lot of sweat equity in there and they've done a good job for the public."

News of the Johnstons' pending exodus was akin to losing a favorite dog to some.

"You wish them well, but you wish they weren't going away," said John Refsnider, a Medford man who has sailed at Howard Prairie since 1979.

"When you're at their marina, it's like you're an honored guest at a house," Refsnider said. "I can't imagine it being any better. If it could, I'd like to see it."

That sort of hospitality was the original vision of resort patriarch Robert Johnston in 1959 when he took a chance and bid on what initially was an 18-month recreation contract. Already in the boat business, the elder Johnston believed boating interest was about to explode and he wanted to be on the front end.

Robert Johnston, the then-teenager Jim Johnston and their first two employees — Glen Bailey and Bill West, a fixture there well into the '90s — built a fleet of seven boats and cobbled together the first marina for opening in July 1960.

"We had a shack and two 55-gallon drums" of gas, Jim Johnston said. "The next year, we decided maybe we should give people coffee and hot dogs."

The county built the present lodge in 1962, the year the lake first filled. That was just ahead of the recreational-vehicle boom that has helped fuel outdoor recreation since.

With tent-camping sites to full hookup RV sites to an improved boat ramp, the facilities eventually expanded to meet visitor demand.

"Over time, it became what it is because of my father's vision," Jim Johnston said.

And everything always centered around the marina.

"That marina, in our lifetimes, always was one of our greatest joys," Jim Johnston said.

With 120 operating days to do a full year's work, resort operation is tough and the days are long, but always pleasurable, Chris Johnston said.

"Everyone who rolls in here is ready to play, not ready to fight," he said. "That makes it easy for us."

The Johnstons plan to ease into life after the resort, sticking around this summer to help the LaGrandes in their transition.

A screenwriter who runs a graphic design and apparel business in the off-season with his wife, Chris Johnston expects to focus his energy year-round on those pursuits.

Robert Johnston, now 93 and still working on his ranch near Jacksonville with his wife, Rosa, might semi-retire.

"He won't say 'retired,'" Jim Johnston laughed. "I don't think he'll admit that yet."

Jim Johnston plans to practice what he's preached the past 47 summers.

"I'll be here —not to work, but to camp," he said. "I might as well. All these years and I've never camped here."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

Share This Story