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Iowa County officials say they believe the Wasserbahn Waterpark Resort’s sudden closure earlier this month was likely related to finances and came after recent complaints.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of civil litigation with this, which is not unusual when a hotel goes out of business,” Iowa County Sheriff Rob Rotter said. “There’s been nothing criminal reported to us so far.”
With tube slides, an 160-gallon bucket dump, geysers and a floating log walk, the Wasserbahn has been a popular Eastern Iowa attraction since it opened in 2004. The hotel, built in 1971, had changed names and gone through several owners since 2011.
Recent hotel and pool inspections show customer complaints, including one about black mold seen in part of the hotel that had been closed off for renovations and another from a family who said they got sick after visiting the water park Feb. 8.
The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals Food and Consumer Safety Bureau visited the hotel Dec. 7 after a guest reported seeing black mold in a section of the hotel closed for renovations since 2019, records show.
Inspector Melissa Myers observed a “mold-like substance” in the renovation area, which was supposed to be closed to the public. Hotel staff “stated they plan to finish renovations in the future and areas with mold will be abated,” the report states.
A follow-up visit Jan. 4 showed most of the construction zone had been properly closed off from the public.
Iowa County Environmental Health Director Sherri Lutz went to the Wasserbahn Feb. 15 to investigate a complaint called in the day before, records show.
The complainant said her kids had gotten diarrhea after swimming at the water park Feb. 8 and that during the visit the family noticed there were no lifeguards at the waterslides and there was a dirty scum on the top of the water in the hot tub.
When Lutz visited, she closed the hot tub until chlorine levels were high enough and closed the waterslides because there were no lifeguards. She said Tom Smock, who holds the license for the water park, sent her an email to say the hotel was closing with no immediate plan to reopen.
Wasserbahn sudden closure
Wasserbahn resort staff learned March 1 the hotel was closing immediately, KCRG-TV reported. An employee said staff were left without pay and those living at the hotel were left without a place to stay.
“It actually is very common to see people working for a hotel to get housing there,” Rotter said. But the arrangement has made the resort’s abrupt closure that much more difficult because residents have been scrambling to get their possessions from the building and find new housing, he said.
“From what I see, whoever the lien holder is taking the building back, that there’s possibly going to be a truck stop built there instead,” Rotter said. There are no recent civil court filings in Iowa against Tom Smock or Smock Investments.
There is some question about who owns the hotel.
Iowa County Assessor’s records show Smock Investments purchased the property on contract in 2019 for $3.23 million. A contract purchase means the buyer makes payments over time and takes ownership when the contract is fulfilled.
Avari Investments, which bought the property out of foreclosure in 2014, still is listed as the deed holder. The property includes several other buildings besides the hotel. These buildings were previously used for retail or restaurant space.
Neither Tom Smock nor Avari’s owner, Yule Park, could be reached for comment Monday.
1971: Amana-Nordstrom opens hotel at exit 225 off Interstate 80.
2004: Wasserbahn Waterpark Resort opens in the hotel. The park includes tube slides, a 160-gallon bucket dump, geysers and a floating log walk.
Sept. 30, 2011: Amana sells at auction to Young Been Kim, assessor’s records show.
July 2012: The Wasserbahn closes for about a week after a water test showed E. coli bacteria in the well that supplies the hotel. Although the dangerous bacteria wasn’t found in the pool, inspectors closed the water park because of ongoing issues with chlorine deficiency.
Sept. 6, 2013: Kim agrees to close the water park under a state consent order after a complaint investigation. To reopen, Kim is required to hire an experienced engineer and a pool management company as well as submit regular water tests.
2014: Avari Investments, owned by Yule Park and Sae Kim, buys hotel and water park out of foreclosure.
July 17, 2015: State Public Health Department grants permission for water park to reopen after new owners made improvements.
Dec. 15, 2019: Smock Investments buys hotel and water park under contract with Avari.
Dec. 31, 2019: Owner plans to renovate south side of first floor from hotel rooms into a spa area, according to inspection records.
April 2020: Smock gets $141,500 from federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Feb. 24, 2021: Smock gets $198,500 from Paycheck Protection Program to retain 49 hotel jobs, the Small Business Administration reported.
Dec. 7, 2021: Triggered by a complaint, inspectors find first-floor construction zone showing signs of black mold, not sealed off from guests.
Jan. 4, 2022: Recheck shows problems have been corrected. Inspector notes she will return in May.
Feb. 15, 2022: Iowa County inspector visits the water park after a complaint from a family that said kids got sick after swimming there Feb. 8. Inspector finds some of same conditions, including no lifeguards.
March 2022: Hotel and water park close suddenly, leaving employees who live at the hotel without housing and without their last paycheck, KCRG-TV reported.
Hotels take hit during pandemic
Hotels in Iowa and across the country took a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic as people canceled vacations and companies halted work travel. The hotel industry reported 1 billion unsold room nights in 2020 and an occupancy rate of just 44 percent, NPR reported.
Even into 2021, Corridor hotel owners told The Gazette regular occupancy levels were half what they were in 2019.
Smock Investments got two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program money totaling $340,000. Those forgivable loans were provided to help companies retain staff during the pandemic.
Restaurants and hotels received $18 billion in PPP loans — more than any other sector — Restaurant Business reported in February 2021.
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