Thunderbird Lodge looking for $5 million by June 1 | SierraSun.com

Thunderbird Lodge looking for $5 million by June 1

Kyle Magin
Sun News Service

The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society needs to raise $5 million before June 1 in order to ensure a large gift given to the historic property to keep it open.

The East Shore mansion recently received a gift to forgive of a $10 million lien on the property from Michigan-based real estate broker Pulte Homes, said the lodge’s manager and curator Bill Watson.

Watson said the forgiveness is contingent on the lodge’s ability to raise $5 million before a June 1 deadline.

“It is a short deadline, but I’m confident we’ll make it. Pulte wanted us to have a sense of urgency with this money. Forgiving the debt is a great gift from Pulte and now we have to raise this money,” Watson said.

The debt to Pulte was incurred after a series of land deals in which the University of Nevada acquired the famous Whittell Estate in 1999 from the Del Webb corporation, who was in turn given valuable government land near Las Vegas, according to a March 21 press release from the Lodge.

The university pulled out in 2002, giving it back to Del Webb. Pulte recently purchased the property from Del Webb, along with the $10 million note.

Now Watson and his staff must raise the $5 million or face an uncertain future after the June 1 deadline, Watson said. The money will go toward an endowment fund for the Thunderbird, without a penny going to Pulte.

“Failure is simply not an option,” Watson said. “We won’t lose $10 million by not raising $5 million, we’re going to do this and I refuse to consider the consequences if we don’t.”

Watson said the endowment fund should produce $200,000 to $300,000 each year in interest, enough to maintain the historic Tahoe estate.

To meet the fundraising goal, Watson and his staff at the preservation society have been aggressive in soliciting high dollar donations.

“We’re targeting fifty contributors, including families, businesses and historical groups to each donate $100 thousand,” Watson said. He said he and his staff have already solicited 14 donation commitments, worth $1.4 million, and are working on more. “Gifts of any size are welcomed and accepted, but in order to raise this much money in such a small window we need to focus on large contributors. They will be the saviors of the Lodge.”

Watson said some of the donors, such as Joan Gibb, have joined the castle club.

“It’s basically our fundraising arm, a place for these donors to go out and recruit friends and business associates to donate to the Lodge,” Watson said.

Gibb, who owns the Thunderbird boat and sat on the preservation society’s board until last year, said she felt compelled to donate.

“My passion for the boat and the lodge are pretty strong and I want to see them maintained,” Gibb said. “To me, this is no different than giving to a hospital or a school, it serves our community. It will be a challenge, but under Bill’s direction we can make this work.”

Gibb said she was approaching friends and associates about donating to the lodge and has found most people very receptive.

“With the way the economy is this isn’t the best time to ask for such large donations, but we need people to be interested in this project. I’ve already had a few friends take a donation into consideration,” Gibb said.

Watson said the Lodge is worth saving because of the amount of history it holds for the East Shore, the Tahoe Basin and the State of Nevada.

“This estate is the intersection of Nevada’s history, from native Americans to philanthropists to old time miners, all of that is cataloged and on display here at the Thunderbird,” Watson said. “We have a responsibility to the next generation to take care of this Lodge and preserve it.”

Watson said he uses the lodge’s history as a major point when he is soliciting donations.

“We have to look at the Lodge as the last link to the gilded age of Tahoe. It shows what limitless wealth could do, and you’ll never see that sort of thing again,” Watson said. “I think it’s important to create that spark of interest in our history, I see it all the time with children taking tours when they see the secret tunnels or pictures of Whittell’s wild animals. I view it as part of my responsibility to groom the next generation of the stewards of our history.”

He said successfully raising the funds will mean great things for the lodge’s public service capabilities.

“It will allow us to not have private parties there any more, which are really hard on the lodge facilities,” Watson said. “Also, it’ll allow us to finally go out and pursue grants we couldn’t in the past.”

Watson said that since the lodge was privately owned, it couldn’t qualify for non-profit grants. He said the endowment fund will allow the Lodge to seek grants for improvements and repairs to the structure, which is more than 80 years old.

Watson said anyone willing to contribute to the lodge is welcome to contact him at (775) 832-8755.