Barry Willingham dislikes the perception of lake living as simply seasonal.
“There’s becoming a habit at Grand Lake that we go from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then they pull the plug on the lake and they drain it, and then they fill it back up on Memorial Day — and everybody goes home,” said Willingham, president and CEO of Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort and Marina.
“I just think it’s ridiculous. The late fall and early spring is actually the best time to be up here. It’s the best weather. It’s fabulous.”
That fun factor will be enhanced soon.
The Afton resort is scheduled to start construction this month on a $5.5 million activity center and racket club, he said. The 11,000-square-foot facility on 4.5 acres could be completed by the end of the year.
The center will include tennis and pickle ball courts, two bowling alleys, golf and shooting simulators, a wiffle ball field fashioned after Fenway Park and a 40-seat movie theater that will double as a video conferencing center. The outdoor area will include two sand volleyball courts and a 120-seat bar, Willingham said.
“We’re calling it daylight to daylight, so daylight saving time to daylight saving time is going to be prime time,” he said. “Even in the dead of winter, I wanted to give not only members something new and exciting to do with the indoor area, but I also wanted to give our conference guests greater incentive to have their conferences at Shangri-La.”
Opened in 1964, Shangri-La, despite intermittent money woes and changes in ownership, was a go-to lakeside retreat for decades. It hosted the 1982 National Governors Conference and the annual Mickey Mantle (and later Steve Owens) celebrity golf tournament.
Eddy Gibbs, former owner of Tulsa-based Ameristar Fence Products, bought the resort in 2010 and since has invested more than $70 million, building — among other things — a 119-room hotel, restaurants, 27 championship golf holes, residential developments and 8,000 square feet of convention space.
“He continues to want to build it out to make it an absolute destination spot for the three-state surrounding area,” Willingham said.
Willingham has had a home on the lake for 15 years and became Shangri-La CEO in 2019.
“We are having more conference business here than we were, but it’s increasing in percentages that I would like to see larger,” he said. “The biggest challenge we have is not getting people back but getting them here the first time.
“I can tell who hasn’t been here for a while, because they walk around with this gaze on their face. We didn’t just put lipstick on it. We wiped it off and started over.”