|By S.J. Komarnitsky, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 27, 2005 - WASILLA -- Since it opened in 1997, the Mount McKinley Wilderness Princess Lodge has expanded twice, more than doubling the number of rooms from 162 to 334.
Now the company wants to add yet more space.
Princess has asked the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to modify the company's conditional-use permit to build an additional 126 rooms by next summer and as many as 252 more in the future.
The request is scheduled for a public hearing Aug. 15 in front of the borough Planning Commission.
If approved, the lodge located just off the Parks Highway about 35 miles north of Talkeetna would have 460 rooms by next year.
That would make it almost as large as the company's flagship hotel near Denali National Park, which has 470 rooms, said Darren Nolan, Princess' vice president in charge of hotel operations for Alaska.
In addition to new rooms, Princess also wants to add a restaurant, a new laundry facility, additional employee housing, a bus shop and a baggage warehouse, according to paperwork the company has filed with the borough.
The company needs borough permission to expand because the lodge is located in Denali State Park, which is covered by a special land use district, Mat-Su Borough planner Susan Lee said. The borough requires permits for any commercial use in the district, she said.
Nolan would not say how much the expansion would cost.
So far, the request, like past ones by Princess, has generated only a few comments, Lee said.
The expansion is a testament to the company's success in marketing its tours and the growing appeal of the Upper Susitna Valley as a tourism destination. A large part of that appeal is Mount McKinley, which, on clear days, can be seen from a back deck and great room in the lodge.
Despite its success, the lodge, which sits in the middle of wilderness, has not been without its challenges, largely because of its remote location.
The lodge is actually a collection of nearly four dozen buildings, including a main lodge, multiple guest rooms and employee housing. The buildings dot nearly 147 acres Princess owns.
Because of its location, the lodge generates its own power, has its own telephone network and its own water supply, which comes from four wells dug from 300 to 500 feet deep, maintenance manager Ursel Scoles said.
Last month, lightning knocked out the telephone system for nearly two weeks, he said. Guests and employees used cell phones, and staff members made do by putting walkie talkies outside guests' rooms.
While the lodge has thrived in the summer, the company plans to continue to keep it closed in the winter, Nolan said. A year-round operation wouldn't pay for itself, he said. Weekends would be busy, but weekdays in the winter would not, he said.
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