Hot Lake Springs, an historic hotel and mineral spa located 10 miles east of La Grande, may become an alternative care center for disabled veterans under an ambitious proposal unveiled Friday.
But it will take $44 million in investment to make it a reality.
David and Lee Manuel, who restored and reopened the resort 13 years ago, are in the process of selling to a group of partners that plan to create the Veterans Restorative Care Center, specializing in natural medicine to heal soldiers with physical and mental injuries.
The center would be owned and operated by the Warrior Bonfire Program, a Mississippi-based nonprofit organization that brings wounded veterans together for small, therapeutic retreats. Medical services would be provided on site by the National University of Natural Medicine, based in Portland.
Finally, Dyne Aquaculture, of Texas, wants to build a facility across the street to annually raise 20 million pounds tilapia, a freshwater fish raised for meat, along with a four-acre hydroponics farm. All profits will go back to support the veterans center, and Dyne Aquaculture estimates they could create as many as 200 direct jobs.
The team will lay out its vision and begin fundraising during an open house Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the resort. It is expected to cost $14 million to buy and re-purpose the property, and another $30 million to build the first phase of the aquaculture project.
“Our goal in all of this is to be self-sustainable,” said John Bickel, founder and CEO of Dyne Aquaculture.
Historically, Hot Lake Springs was a healing place for Native American tribes prior to 1812. The building was also a sanitarium in its heyday in the early 1900s, where geothermal waters were used and experimented with to cure patients.
Bickel, who is himself a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and disabled veteran, first came up with the idea for the Veterans Restorative Care Center while looking into Hot Lake Springs as a potential location for his aquaculture business. Though it seemed like a great spot, he said he had no idea what to do with the resort.
“I’ve never done anything with hospitality,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Warrior Bonfire Project came on board and they soon reached out to the National University of Natural Medicine — the oldest accredited naturopathic school in North America. All four partners held a three-day meeting in June to work out their model.
Lee Manuel, who along with her family began restoring Hot Lake Springs when the building was falling apart, said they are honored to step aside for such an honorable project.
Mike Chesne, vice president of outreach for Warrior Bonfire, said they will come up with a vetting process for accepting soldiers and their families, and could get started sometime within the next year, if everything comes together.
Chesne, who spent 25 years in the military including nine tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said he realized the value of natural medicine and group trips for veterans after he was wounded and sent home in 2008. Doctors had him on 27 different pills, he said, as he struggled to regain his identity.
“Literally, I thought I was crazy,” Chesne said.
The suicide rate among veterans is reaching an epidemic rate, Chesne said, now averaging 22 every day. He said he hopes the Veterans Restorative Care Center can offer an integrated solution for soldiers into the future.
“I found a new mission. That’s brought me here,” he said.
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.