Concerns grow about future of Indiana Beach

Will Indiana Beach, the beloved summer attraction in Montecello, open next summer, as it has every year for the past 87 seasons?

The company that purchased the amusement park in 2008, Morgan Recreation Vacations, says the answer is an unequivocal "yes."

"I've only been there as general manager a couple years, but these rumors crop up every year at this time," Indiana Beach General Manager Bob Gallagher told the Journal & Courier. "We're planning for the 2014 season and actually looking forward to announcing some expansions."

But some Monticello business owners and former employees of the park—including relatives of Tom Spackman, the late, longtime park owner—aren't so sure. They tell of layoffs of non-seasonal employees inside the park, utilities shut off for lack of payment and souring relationships between the park and Monticello-area businesses. Across the country, other Morgan RV-owned parks and facilities have been sold or fallen into foreclosure, raising local anxieties even further.

"They destroyed, in one year, what the Spackmans developed in 85 years," said Steve Juntgen, a former park employee and one of Tom Spackman's sons-in-law.

Hanging in the balance—apart from fond memories and summertime diversions—is an estimated $60 million that Indiana Beach pumps into the Monticello economy each year.

"It's a hard time for us as a community because we lost (Tom) Spackman this year," said Janet Dold, executive director of the Monticello Chamber of Commerce, referring to Spackman's death in November at the age of 100. "The tradition of Indiana Beach and the legacy of it is in the forefront of our minds. When we do hear rumors, it's unsettling."

Despite those rumors, Morgan RV CEO and owner Bob Moser, of Sarasota, N.Y., said any talk of financial trouble related to Indiana Beach or Morgan RV is false. Beyond that, Moser said, it's just plain frustrating.

"At times, it feels like you're getting kicked in the knees," Moser said of the rumors. "We're trying, we really are. … You're not going to make everyone happy, but I'm trying here."

Earl Spackman founded Ideal Beach on Lake Shafer in 1926. In 1945, Thomas Spackman, his son, took over. He changed the name to Indiana Beach seven years later.

During his tenure, Spackman secured the park's place as the major funnel of tourist dollars into the Monticello economy.

Spackman announced his intent to sell the park in 2001, said Cathy Juntgen, one of his two daughters and Steve Juntgen's wife.

"It took a long time to find a buyer," Cathy Juntgen said. "We had maybe three or four other people interested. Unfortunately, we didn't know Morgan that well—and their situation. Unfortunately, they ended up being the buyers."

The sale, for an unspecified sum, was announced in 2008. At the time, Tom Spackman called it a "good deal for the community."

Included in the deal was a guarantee that Cathy Juntgen would be employed at the park for at least a year after the sale. She was a campground manager with the company before being laid off, along with her husband, in October 2010. She was rehired the following year.

Juntgen eventually quit last May, saying her job had become less about campground management and more about "collection and sales."

"I feel like they're sacrificing customer service for the almighty dollar," Cathy Juntgen said. "Especially last year. They had the electricity turned off due to lack of payment. The cable was turned off. I worked a stint with no computers. How do you work and check people in when you don't have computers?"

During the Juntgens' time working at the Morgan-owned Indiana Beach, she said, the park went through annual layoffs each October. These weren't seasonal employees common at summer hotspots such as Indiana Beach, she said.

"Everyone knows that when they are seasonal, they'll be let go," she said, "but these were people that think they've got a full-time job. In general, they do bring some people back because they can't find people to take their places. But there was no guarantee when you got let go you'd be able to come back."

Vendors — such as Coca-Cola — increasingly were paid through collect-on-delivery, Cathy Juntgen said, a payment method favored by vendors who fear that a purchasing company may default on a payment. In a COD transaction, vendors require the purchaser to pay at the time of delivery, rather than maintain a line of credit.

Moser, the CEO, denies there are any financial problems with the park. Without disclosing an exact dollar figure, he said he's invested "multimillion" dollars into Indiana Beach this year and that in 2014 the park will debut several features that he's not yet prepared to announce. He said the company has invested $15 million in the park since purchasing it five years ago.

Neither Moser nor Gallagher would elaborate on the round of layoffs the park implemented in late October, when about eight employees were let go, including Sherry Vogel, director of sales and marketing.

For four years, Vogel worked at Indiana Beach. Part of her job was to rebuild relationships with the Monticello community that were damaged in the early days of the park's new ownership.

"There were seven or eight of us that were laid off in various departments, full time," Vogel said. "It was news to me. It was shocking. There really was no reason (given)."

It was Vogel who was tasked with maintaining positive working relationships with local businesses.

For many local business owners, the town hall meeting Moser held in the early days of his ownership of the park remains the only time they've interacted with him. It's a jarring contrast to what residents were used to. Tom Spackman was accessible.

Ingrid Landis, owner of Necessities Boutique in downtown Monticello, said the park has increasingly relied on busing in patrons from outside the area. When those park-goers take the bus home and drive past local businesses outside the park, it represents lost potential revenue.

"We're not getting the tourist trade we used to since they've taken ownership, and it's sad," Landis said. "It's very disappointing because it has hurt the local economy."

Moser said the park's attendance hasn't changed since his company took over. He declined, however, to provide any attendance figures.

"Basically we do about the same since we bought the property," Moser said. "It hasn't fluctuated much since 2008."

Some businesses felt burned, Cathy Juntgen said, after Indiana Beach took money for advertisements that were supposed to be placed on the park's map. When the maps were printed, some of the businesses' ads were missing.

"I don't know anything about it," Moser said when asked about the map. "If there was a mistake made, I would immediately correct it."

Jeff VanWeelden, owner of Monticello's Riverside Pub and Restaurant, said local business owners feel disheartened by unfulfilled promises made by Morgan RV.

"It was (the Spackmans') pride and joy," VanWeelden said. "When they owned it, it felt like somebody cared about it. Now it's just another asset on the books."

Moser said he would consider hosting another town hall meeting if local business owners felt it would help. As far as not caring for the park, that's a charge Moser vehemently denies.

"We're a small, family business," Moser said. "I'm one of them. I want them to be successful."

Part of the concern is fueled by perceived financial troubles with Morgan RV. The company is a division of Morgan Management LLC. An online profile for Moser describes Morgan RV as operating more than $1.5 billion worth of real estate ventures.

In 2011, Morgan operated 42 RV resorts in 14 states and billed itself as the largest privately owned operator of RV parks and resorts in the country, according to an archive of the company's website.

Flash forward to present day and, after several foreclosures and the selling off of properties, the company counts just five remaining RV resorts in four states among its portfolio — including Indiana Beach.

So what happened to the other parks? Some are easier to account for than others. In recent years:

. Seven Morgan RV resorts entered foreclosure after the company defaulted on a $36 million loan, according to a May 8 article in the Saratogian.

. Three Maine resorts were foreclosed this year after Morgan RV defaulted on a $38 million loan.

. Thirteen former Morgan RV resorts were sold to Sun Communities Inc., according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In all, 16 former Morgan resorts are now owned by Sun.

. Twelve former Morgan RV properties were auctioned off and acquired by Janus Hotels.

The company also has faced controversy in the courtroom.

In 2012, a Massachusetts judge found that Morgan RV Resorts and employees at Peters Pond RV Resort in Sandwich, Mass., had intimidated resort residents into purchasing inflated memberships of up to $16,000 to remain in the resort. The company was required to pay $200,000 in civil penalties and costs.

This year, a Wisconsin judge found that Morgan RV-managed Crystal Lake RV Resort in Lodi, Wis., violated Wisconsin environmental laws by mismanaging the resort's three wastewater treatment lagoons. The company was ordered to pay $90,000 in forfeitures, penalty charges and attorney fees.

Shortly after that, Indiana Beach was found to have neglected more than $350,000 in self-reported property and innkeeper taxes owed to White County. The park paid the entire outstanding amount in April.

Moser said these instances shouldn't fuel speculation about Indiana Beach's future. Indiana Beach would never be affected by the sale or foreclosure of another park, he said.

"We own over 250 different types of assets," Moser said. "Every single one is its own company. None of them affect the others. A lot of people don't understand that."

The company did sell a large group of parks, Moser said, but "it was a group we did not see the company owning forever. Unlike Indiana Beach. That's a property we have no plans on selling whatsoever."

The legal dramas and foreclosures have not gone unnoticed by the Juntgens. No longer associated with the park their family built, they're now outside observers, hoping for the best.

"It would be very sad to see what my dad built all of a sudden close," Cathy Juntgen said.

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