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Last updated: Sun. Jun. 15, 2014 - 02:21 pm EDT

Wawasee inn thriving

After years of legal battles and accusations of mismanagement,

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SYRACUSE

It’s a Wednesday in early June, and the shores along the west side of Lake Wawasee are serene.

That’s especially true behind the large resort that takes up space at 702 E. Lake View Road.

There’s one young couple sitting in chairs along a deck overlooking the water, a leashed dog at their feet.

A group of older folks are finishing their lunches outside the resort’s restaurant, and a few other people are outside the rented homes around the facility.

It may be calm now, but when the weekend comes, there will be music, crowds, booze and what had been missing for so long – activity.

The Oakwood Resort in Syracuse has been open for the past year, rising from the ashes of disrepair it had been left in through years of not being used.

Infighting between the people who previously ran the resort as a religious retreat, lawsuits that alleged misuse of funds, a yearslong untangling of debts and assets plus a botched sale to an Indianapolis company that was fought by conservationists and local residents alike left the facility devoid of people.

But through the efforts of a retired CEO and a Fort Wayne ophthalmologist, the 77-room resort is now thriving.

“I thought this would be a three-month job,” said Ian Rolland, the retired Lincoln National CEO who was asked by the state attorney general to get Oakwood’s expenses in order.

“I didn’t know it would take three years.”

Bureaucratic chaos

There are still remnants of Oakwood’s historical roots attached to its walls.

Down one corridor are old photos, some dating back to before the turn of the 1900s.

There’s a flier advertising rooms for $1.25 a night and there’s even the original deed from 1894.

Outside the resort’s spa in the lobby are old photos from the 1920s and 1930s, showing people dressed in shirts and ties, long dresses, gathered in group shots for photos outside the original hotel in summer months like June or August.

On the photos are written things like “United Brethren Young People Convention” and “Annual Assembly of the Evangelical Society.”

These hearken back to the site’s religious roots, which it maintained into 2007.

That’s when allegations that funds were misused began to surface.

The Oakwood Foundation had been formed as the United Methodist Foundation for Adult Christian Ministries and had taken over what was called the Oakwood Inn and Conference Center in 1993.

The foundation’s purpose was to run the Syracuse resort as a nondenominational, religious retreat, inn, conference center and restaurant.

Soon thereafter, a man named Howard Brembeck, who made a fortune in farm equipment and has since died, gave the foundation $20 million to run and maintain the inn and resort.

Brembeck alleged in a 2007 lawsuit that despite his and others’ donations, the foundation’s board mismanaged the resort so badly that it lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and went into debt.

Brembeck’s lawsuit, filed with former foundation member Donald Blosser, claimed the situation was so bad that in 2004, Brembeck offered to give the foundation $1 million if the entire board would resign and elect new, more capable members. The board voted to accept the donation then later, in an allegedly illegal meeting, members changed their minds, court records said.

Bureaucratic chaos then ensued.

A new foundation soon took control of the property, which closed in 2008.

That foundation maintained the grounds in case the resort would be reopened.

For the next two years, the center remained closed.

That’s when Rolland entered the picture.

Debts and finances

“When the attorney general asks you to do something, you can’t very well say no,” Rolland says now.

It was 2010 when Attorney General Greg Zoeller approached Rolland to act as the receiver of the inn and conference center.

As receiver, he was tasked with sorting out debts and finances and then finding a buyer for the inn and resort.

“I didn’t know what a receiver was or did,” Rolland said. “But I thought, how hard can it be?”

Rolland found out quickly: It can be exceptionally hard.

First, he had to untangle the finances, which officials at the time described as a major undertaking.

Then, Rolland had to line up a new buyer – which he found in Buckingham Properties, an Indianapolis company.

But even with a buyer lined up, troubles began to mount.

Landowners within the area worried about what Buckingham Properties wanted to do with the resort.

Would it have liquor? Would it still be religious?

Rolland admits the landowners were fearful.

Then there were complaints from the conservationists.

The Wawasee Area Conservancy Foundation claimed Buckingham planned to put in too many piers off the shore into the water, which would threaten the wildlife.

Rolland said both groups – landowners and conservationists – were intensely against Buckingham coming in and taking over the property.

“We ran into every roadblock there is,” Rolland said.

So much so, that eventually Buckingham backed out of the sale, leaving Rolland with no buyer.

But in the end, he said, that move proved to be a “godsend.”

In stepped Dr. J. Rex Parent.

‘One in a billion’

Rex Parent was in Florida one night in 2012.

He needed some discount shirts to wear while on vacation, so he stopped at a roadside store and began thumbing through T-shirts.

He remembers this vividly because this is the moment he decided to become a resort owner.

“I’ve never in my life had something like this happen,” he says now.

Rolland and Parent have been friends for 30 years. It was Rolland who approached Parent about putting in a bid for the Oakwood after Buckingham backed out of the deal.

At first, Parent said no.

But on the night before bids were due, Parent found himself next to a gregarious man also shopping for discount vacation shirts.

He was so talkative, Parent says, that the two began striking up a conversation.

At first, it was just normal chitchat.

Then the man said he was the dean of hotel and restaurant management for the University of South Florida.

By the end of talking to him, Parent not only had changed his mind about buying the resort, but he also had made a friend who would make several trips to Oakwood and give advice on what to do and how to repair the site.

“What were the chances of that happening?” Parent said. “One in a billion?”

Parent called Rolland early that morning and put in an undisclosed bid.

Soon enough, he was the new owner of the Oakwood.

But, he didn’t know exactly what he had bought.

‘In my heart’

Rolland described Parent as the perfect man to come in after Buckingham walked out of the deal for the resort.

He grew up in the Wawasee area, knew the people and knew the way of life there.

“Buckingham was so aggressive, that when (Parent) came in, he seemed like a moderate,” Rolland said. “His getting involved is the success to getting the deal done.”

Parent himself had no experience in running a resort, but he had many ideas going into the venture.

He wanted something in Indiana like what he saw in Florida.

In his vision, there would be concerts on the weekends, events, boating and plenty of space for kids to run and play.

This vision also recalled his days growing up in the area, where there were various places or clubs for teenagers to meet and gather.

There would also be activities for adults – and, unlike under previous regimes, there would be liquor to be had.

“I think people like to relax and have a drink,” Parent said.

His two sons – one a builder and contractor; another who developed upscale retirement communities – were heavily involved in renovating the resort.

Some of the buildings were dilapidated, Parent said. Trees were down. There needed to be serious redecorations.

His sons went full-throttle, he said, hiring 100 people out of the chute to start getting the work done.

“It was very much ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ ” Parent says.

Things went so fast that renovations were complete for the 2013 summer season.

And after years of being shuttered, the Oakwood reopened the doors.

“I’m doing this because Wawasee is in my heart,” Parent said.

First anniversary

It’s a Wednesday in early June.

Tamra Henry, the operations manager at the Oakwood Resort, which had just celebrated it’s one-year anniversary, is showing off the boat that takes people out on the lake every night at 7:30.

She’s showing off the restaurant, then the bar, with hard wooden floors and paintings adorning the walls.

She’s showing off the spa. She’s showing off a few of the guest rooms – each one unique compared to the others.

“The opportunities here are endless,” she says.

Henry spent 26 years working for Marriott but has now come here with a host of other hotel veterans Parent hired to run the resort.

It’s quiet today, but the resort and the resort workers are preparing for the weekend.

There’s a free concert planned – everyone is invited – as well as a host of other activities.

And soon the people will be trickling in; guests will be arriving.

It’s already become a hotspot for local or nearby companies that want to give their workers a weekend away but don’t want to send those employees far away on planes or long car rides.

It’s not necessarily like the old days, but the Oakwood has been reborn.

jeffwiehe@jg.net


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