THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Cobblestone preservation

Thursday, January 31, 2002

The Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce announced "We're going to start now." What they are starting on is a campaign to save and restore the long-vacant Cobblestone Inn.

There has been talk of such a restoration for most of the 15 years since the landmark ballroom shut its doors. The chamber is the first organization to climb out on a limb for the Cobblestone, at least the first with the potential muscle to make it a go.

The first question is whether it can be saved. According to the Iowa company that restored the famed Surf Ballroom, it clearly can. Although taken with a grain of salt in that this company also wants the contract for the work, the place is not in bad condition considering the time it has sat empty.

The second question would be whether the community wants it restored. In Lakeside, people clearly want an option better than seeing their landmark crumble into an eyesore. In Storm Lake, the place seems to rekindle memories and romance like no other.

The third question is what we would do with it when it is restored. This one is not so simple to answer. Would local people use an upscale restaurant, or would that just compete with the locally-run businesses we have? Are there enough people who go dancing today, and enough affordable acts available in the region to keep the bandstand busy? If we are to try something beyond that - the likes of a convention center and antique hall have been mentioned - do we have the need and the means to make them work?

On one hand, a handful of renovated ballrooms across the region seem to be making it fine. On the other, there's a reason the Cobblestone closed all those years ago - not enough people were coming. Has being without the ballroom this long permanently remedied that?

We have to both admire and support the chamber of commerce's willingness to play lead dog on such an effort.

Despite these questions and many others that will be asked in the months to come, the Cobblestone seems just too good a resource to give up without an all-out effort.

You couldn't build such a thing today if you tried, and you certainly couldn't duplicate the charm and history.

We have many good and imaginative projects on the drawing board in Storm Lake, from a community center to an aquatic center. If we can dream to build such wonders from scratch, we suppose there is no reason to say it is impossible to restore a building that we already have.

More questions - Would it be operated by the business community, as Santa's Castle is? Or owned by the public of Storm Lake or Lakeside? A historical group? Or do we feel it will need a private operator to make a go of it?

Even after renovations, it will take some large sums to furnish, operate, staff, provide utilities, maintain, insure.

The chamber can't handle a task like this alone. If it is to be successful, the whole community will need to get behind it, and the imagination of people all across the region will have to be tickled.

At first blush, our reaction is that it isn't impossible, but it certainly won't be easy. Most restoration tasks worth doing aren't - and few would pencil out and make good business sense right off the bat.

Storm Lakers will first have to gain control of the building from the owner, Wendell Petty. Petty has said before that his goal is restoration for a community function. There's room for some creativity in that deal, we assume.

It would be nice if romance and energy alone would get such a project done, but in reality it will take a strong plan of attack, an organization of volunteers and some seed money just to get started.

The big band era, the great past stars of jazz, the early pioneers of rock 'n' roll and an entrepreneur family from Storm Lake's history has gifted us with the building blocks of something very special that can be brought back to life.

Fifteen years of silence has shown us that no one is going to come in and do the work and hand it to us. If the Cobblestone is to survive and shine again, Storm Lake will have to make it so.

The window of opportunity is not limitless. Every season that goes by can only run the place down further and add to the cost of bringing it back to classic form.