Follow-Up File: Estrella left in limbo by Paso politics

Names: Dick Willhoit and Angela Jones

Jobs: president and vice president of operations

Business: Estrella Associates Inc.

What they said then: In March 2006, The Tribune reported that Estrella Associates Inc. of Paso Robles had revamped and renamed the hot springs and spa it had purchased at the northeast end of the city.

Formerly called the Paso Robles Hot Springs & Spa, Estrella purchased the business and its surrounding property from former owners, Russ and Carol Kiessig.

After an eight-day closure to renovate the spa, the newly dubbed River Oaks Hot Springs & Spa reopened.

Nine months later, The Tribune reported the development company received a permit to build a pavilion near the spa. That project was valued at more than $364,000.

What they say now: After a 2008 downturn, business at River Oaks spa — particularly for the hot tubs — has been on the rise since Thanksgiving, said Angela Jones. Her duties as vice president of operations include managing the hot springs and River Oaks Golf Course.

But the purchase of the hot springs and spa was a by-product of Estrella Associates’ desire to expand the River Oaks development, said President Dick Willhoit. Those plans are now on hold indefinitely thanks to city politics.

“The acquisition was a natural acquisition for the expansion of the River Oaks community,” he said. “The spa happened to be on the property.”

A long-time supporter of local youth organizations, Willhoit’s intention was to make the nearly eight acres of grounds around the spa and its man-made lake available to nonprofit organizations at little or no cost for fundraising.

That’s what motivated Estrella’s construction of the pavilion, which includes a kitchen and seats 180 people.

Willhoit, who typically declines to discuss financial figures, said that between 2006 and 2009 about 40 local organizations used the property and pavilion to raise a total of $800,000 in cash and in-kind donations.

Now Estrella needs the grounds to generate income until its plans to build 1,200 residential homes and a resort with 130 lodging units on the 270-acre property can be realized, Willhoit said. Its companywide roster of employees and contractors has dropped from 57 at the end of 2006 to 24.

The original River Oaks development was in Paso Robles’ 2003 General Plan, but the newer property wasn’t, said Ron Whisenand, the city’s community development director.

Estrella submitted a specific plan for the area, known as River Oaks II. In May 2009, the City Council adopted a resolution to encourage development in other areas by prioritizing processing of specific plans for the Uptown/Town Centre, Chandler Ranch and Olsen Ranch/Beechwood — but not River Oaks II.

The city never denied Estrella’s proposal, but Whisenand is recommending the City Council do that at a future meeting. If council members agree, Estrella’s plans would remain on hold at least until a new General Plan — the city’s blueprint for regulating building — is crafted.

Whisenand expects that process could begin around 2013.

This year, Estrella contracted with Fairway Management Inc. to oversee event management and catering at the pavilion and spa grounds under the name River Oaks Events. Focusing on for-profit events, only a handful of nonprofits will continue holding fundraisers there.

“I really don’t think that the way we were running the events would have changed it if weren’t for the position we’re now in,” Jones said. “I don’t know that it would have changed so drastically.”

— Raven J. Railey