A cold March wind hisses through broken windows and gaping doors as Wally Wright surveys the shambles that the Great Salt Lake made of his Saltair Resort.
"I could swamp it out in a week," he said. "The roof's damaged, but in a couple of weeks, we could restore the interior."Wright's optimism is grounded in his memory of the summer day in 1983 when the $3 million resort opened for business.
It was touted as the reincarnation of the old "Lady of the Lake" where visitors once whirled on the nation's largest dance floor and bobbed in water three times as salty as the ocean.
However, an extraordinary wet cycle that would raise the lake's level nearly 12 feet already had begun. Just a year later, Saltair fell victim to flooding that would wreak some $250 million in damage on lakeside property.
This is the year Wright hopes to restore the main building, an enormous old hangar given a vaguely Moorish look by the addition of arched windows and fiberglass onion domes. Their golden hue is now dulled by grime.
A pair of antique Southern Pacific passenger cars now house Saltair Gifts, where tourists who pull off I-80 can browse among the T-shirts, ashtrays and lumps of salt crystals.
Wright estimates he's lost "literally millions of dollars" in the past seven years and believes it will cost at least $1 million to repair all the attractions on his 400-acre leasehold. Only 40 acres remain above water.
Years of wind and waves smashed a water slide and left brackish water in the bumper-boat pools. Broken wooden walkways rise above caked mud and a faded little mock riverboat tilts in a shallow pond.
Indeed, so desolate is the scene that Wright rented it for the filming of an after-the-holocaust movie.
The main structure is visible for miles, and visitors rarely fail to ask about it, said Tom Peck, a volunteer at a state information center across the freeway.
"Part of what I did was explain what happened to the building. When people understood, they felt sad for Wally Wright," he said. "The question always was, `Can he rebuild it?' "
"It's important for it to be open. It's kind of an oasis for when people come in," Peck said.The concept of a shoreline resort dates to 1893, when the original Saltair was built as a kind of western Coney Island with a rail line spanning the 15 miles to downtown Salt Lake City. It burned in 1922. A second resort rose in the mid-1930s.
Old-timers remember marathon dance contests during the Depression. In the '40s, the best big bands performed on the pavilion. Wright, now 56, remembers taking dates to listen to Stan Kenton.
The state took over the resort in 1959 and closed it down. Restoration was much discussed but never accomplished. In 1970, a fire leveled the second Saltair. The new Saltair is about a mile west of the old site.
"I've always been fascinated with it. It was very promising," said Wright, a developer whose projects have included Salt Lake's Trolley Square shopping center, the Alpine Slide in Park City and St. Louis' Union Station.
John Ibach, assistant superintendent of the adjacent Great Salt Lake State Park, said a reopened Saltair would help persuade the quarter of a million visitors each year to stay a little longer.
"Anything that gives them a little more perspective of what the Great Salt Lake is, is fine with us," he said.