It’s 9 p.m. Saturday, and the watermelons are flowing.
Not the fruit — at least, not in its intended form. Watermelons are a pink beverage dispensed like water from the two bars at Cottonwood Cove Marina & RV Resort. Every other person sitting at the bars and tables and milling around the patio is sipping one.
Made locally famous by the former Cottonwood Marina, which washed down the Missouri River in the flood of 2011, watermelons are served over ice, in plastic cups.
When one bartender was asked about the recipe, she laughed and said, “We don’t know.”
Cottonwood co-owner Mike Lupardus just shrugged.
“It’s juice and rum and some other ingredients, like a ‘jungle juice,’” he said.
But the real mystery is how a new business that has sunk “well into the millions” — and counting — about 4 miles outside of Blair city limits can go under the radar, and how its two owners are relatively unknown to local residents.
Big plans in the works
The Luparduses are Audubon, Iowa, natives. Steve, of Bennington, has a background in the bar and restaurant business and small-acreage development. Mike, who lives in Jefferson, Iowa, and plans to move permanently with his family to Blair, has experience in farm implement sales. Steve began boating at Cottonwood Marina in the mid-1980s, which is how they became acquainted with the area.
The brothers closed a deal on Jan. 1, 2014, to buy the flood-ravaged Cottonwood property from previous owners Ben and Jo Rogge.
Construction started shortly after as the Luparduses checked off their list of required permits and inspections from Washington County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, for their 71-acre property at 10270 Riverside Lane.
The 7,200-square-foot lodge, which includes a restaurant, bar and garage-style doors to allow customers to wander in from the docks, was built 4.5 feet above the 2011 flood level and about 200 yards behind the previous building.
“We know we’re going to have floods,” Mike Lupardus said. “(We wanted) the ability to do business in high and low water.”
Live bands are booked Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays all summer on the concert stage. Junior Mathiesen, former manager of Omaha’s Anchor Inn, which is now closed, books the entertainment.
The Luparduses estimate about 1,200 customers patronized Cottonwood Cove the Sunday of its first Memorial Day weekend. What makes that number unusual is that most of those customers were not from Blair.
Cottonwood also has an RV campground adjacent to the lodge, with city water and sewer and wi-fi access. RV owners, who pay a one-time membership fee and annual or monthly campsite fees, can customize their lots. Workers were rolling out grass on the RV lots on Friday afternoon. Bird feeders, fire pits and even a tiki bar have sprung up around the campers.
Of the 97 RV spaces available, six remained on Friday.
“By Sunday night, they’ll all be gone,” Mike Lupardus said.
One-third of those RV owners have never owned one. Although a handful of RVs come from Fort Calhoun and Blair, most are from the Omaha area, Lincoln, Fremont and Scribner.
Most of the RV owners don’t even have boats.
“Most of them are 45-plus,” Lupardus said. “Most have grown kids.”
Reservations for the lots were being snapped up a year before the campground even opened.
Cottonwood’s second phase is slated to begin this fall: the addition of 100 to 150 more RV lots.
“The beginning of the fourth year, we’d like to see 400,” Lupardus said.
Over the weekend, poles for roofs were being installed on 48 members-only boat slips at the marina, which looks very different from the one Blairites recall from before the flood. The covered slips were expected to be completed and available at the end of this week. Forty-five more guest slips will also be available.
But that is just the beginning. There is also a 40-foot-wide public boat access, and plans for a total of 350 boat slips at the marina.
“We really want to encourage people to be out here,” Lupardus said. “We’re in the quality-of-life business.”
The scale of the Cottonwood Cove project is underestimated by many who have never visited it since its opening. And the business isn’t even close to completion.
A public adult swimming pool will be installed next to the patio, and members-only adult and children’s pools and a bathhouse will also be installed soon next to the campground.
There are plans for 50 to 60 1,200- to 1,400-square-foot cabins. Cottonwood will own the cabin property, and cabin owners will lease the lots.
“We’ll build our first cabin this summer,” Lupardus said.
He said Cottonwood will eventually be open year-round, “as long as the business supports that.”
“I’d love to have a seven-day-a-week operation,” he said.
Why the investment?
Why would two people from out of town want to spend this kind of money in Blair, especially on a property devastated by a flood?
“The dream we have here is probably not any different than all of the owners before us,” Lupardus said.
The difference is, he alluded to, is that they have the resources to make Cottonwood a place that stands out from other Missouri River businesses and stands up to floodwaters. They want to have the only destination of its kind between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis.
“We both believe in being able to start with a clean slate,” Lupardus said. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” he said.
The development and opening and Cottonwood Cove hasn’t been without challenges.
Cottonwood has private security, but a couple of troublemakers have snuck in. Sheriff’s deputies are occasionally on-site to help curb problems.
“We’re just not going to tolerate dumb behavior,” Lupardus said.
Cottonwood struggled with finding employees, but that has improved. It is still short on kitchen staff. Eighteen people are employed there, but 25 is ideal, Lupardus said.
RV owners are also taking a risk with their investment. Most reserved their spots before Cottonwood Cove even opened, and many were not customers at the Cottonwood Marina.
Two of those RV owners are Debbie Ahrens and her husband, Keith, of Blair, who had a boat slip at the Cottonwood Marina before the flood.
They took notice when the Luparduses began work at the site.
“We’ve been watching it a long time,” she said. “We drove down here every week and watched.”
Carri Hillmer and Jean Welchert, two friends from Fort Calhoun, along with their husbands, are the first ones to have claimed a spot at Cottonwood Cove.
Hillmer said she camped for eight years at the River View Park Resort & Marina, just down the road from Cottonwood.
“This was a better spot,” she said. “It’s like a little community down there.”
They knew Steve Lupardus and had faith in his experience in the bar and restaurant business.
“We knew his history,” Hillmer said. “He had a good track record.”
Hillmer said area boaters should be aware of the new opportunity.
“There’s nothing between here and Decatur,” she said. “We need to push the boaters.”
Brad Lippincott, a 1982 Blair High School graduate, has an RV at Cottonwood. He lived in Texas for many years and moved back about 15 years ago.
He and his wife, Cindy, reserved a spot via “word of mouth.”
“We just bought our camper last year,” he said. “We still want to go camping other places. We can come off of work and come here.”
Their campsite neighbors come from Bennington, Fort Calhoun, Scribner and Tekamah.
“You gotta look at the future,” Lippincott said. “It’s got major potential.”
Part of Cottonwood Cove’s 4-year plan
- 50 to 60 cabins
- 400 RV sites
- 350 boat slips
- 1 public, 2 members-only swimming pools