Photo Credit: Michael Bupp, The Sentinel
Written by Toni Fitzgerald, The Sentinel
Most people say goodbye to their childhood home at some point.
But John Heinze is different. Heinze, whose family owns the Allenberry Resort Inn and Playhouse in Monroe Township, lived in the Mansion House on the property for decades, and he continues to work near it today.
That will change soon, though. On Friday, the Heinze family recently reached a deal to sell the resort to a local man, whose identity they have not released yet.
Once the sale is finalized in the coming months, Heinze will finally say farewell to the Stone Mansion.
“This is our homestead,” says John Heinze, whose father bought the Allenberry property in 1944. “I lived here from when I was 9 till I was 64.”
The sale comes two years after the resort was first put on the market but failed to find a new owner. It will mark the end of an era for the Heinze family, which has shepherded Allenberry through several recessions and multiple generations.
“We’re too old” to continue running the property, says John, who is 81. His brother, Jere, is eight and a half years younger. His sister, Mary Jane, is between them.
John says the three of them talked, over the years, about changing the management structure or buying each other out, but “we could never afford it. We just left it the way it was.
“We’ve been under a lot of pressure the last few years to keep the business going until we get a legitimate, responsible buyer,” John says.
The past 10 years, in particular, took a toll.
The Great Recession
The siblings had been inching toward the idea of selling. But the Great Recession sealed it.
“We built the business and it was moving along pretty good, until the recession hit,” John says.
In 2006, Allenberry reached a deal with a builder to develop a tract of land the Heinze family had long owned located next to the resort.
It was already a zoned commercial property. The Heinzes imagined it as a 55-plus community that would include 126 houses. It would have golf cart access to the Allenberry so retirees could zip back and forth between the two properties with ease.
They signed a $4.8 million contract with the developer and had fronted several hundred thousand dollars to start the work.
Then the recession hit. The deal fell apart.
“(The builder) broke the sales agreement,” John says. “They were a national builder, and they had about five large projects in the Central Pa. area, they wanted a presence near D.C. and Philly.”
Having poured money into that failed deal, the Heinzes had difficulty securing the funds they needed to make other improvements to the property.
“The Pine Lodge was the last lodge we built (around the same time), and the financing didn’t present,” John says. “We’d wanted it to have 40 rooms.”
The customer base for the inn has also changed over the past decade, notes Jackie Heinze, John’s daughter. She lives in California but returns to Allenberry each summer with her 5-year-old son to spend time with her parents and help with the business.
“A lot of the best groups we relied on in the ‘80s were bus groups from senior living, church groups, and that’s just a smaller business now,” she says. “We’re not bringing in the people that way. I’m not sure what changed, but it’s not as easy to rely on.”
Allenberry also carries debt, and the past few years it’s become a juggling act to keep up with its creditors.
“It’s been a challenge,” says bookkeeper Marjorie Laman, who has worked at Allenberry since 1973. “But most of the people I talk to who call about wanting bills paid are very nice to me. They understood the situation. They’ve always gotten paid as soon as we could and never given me any problems.”
A great deal of that, she says, is the Heinze family’s reputation.
“They knew John wasn’t going to stick them with bills to be paid,” Laman says. “That’s one of the things they understood. I’d call and explain the situation that right now we’re in financial difficulty and that, you know, we would get money to them as soon as we could.”
When the property first went up for sale a couple years ago, John hoped it would sell quickly.
The Heinzes listed through NAI CIR Commercial Real Estate Services. The asking price was $6 million, though John admits that was a pie-in-the-sky number. The property has assessed at $3.6 million.
Over the past two years, the property received four offers, three of which John said had real potential. He thought the sale would go through each time.
The man who signed a deal Friday to buy the property had submitted an earlier bid. John and Jackie describe him as someone with lots of energy who is already jumping into making improvements.
The property needs someone like that, they agree.
“It’s definitely its own model,” Jackie says of Allenberry. “I don’t know if any other property that has a theater, inns, restaurants and a club, there’s lots of different aspects, plus the murder mystery weekends we’ve had for all these years.”
The family appears to be relieved they won’t need to do the auction.
“An auction is like going to trial. You never know how strong your cases is, you never know what’s going to happen,” John says. “We’re happy not to have to go to auction.”
The buyer also allows the Heinzes to meet the goal they’d set for themselves: Getting out of the business.
“It’s a retirement sale,” John says. “I just turned 81 years old. There aren’t a lot of people looking to work really hard at age 81.”
Plus he has health issues. John had a heart attack in December. It took five minutes of CPR to bring him back.
“I have one stent and probably will have a couple more,” he says frankly.
A strange season
At its peak, the Allenberry employed more than 100 people in the summers, between the front desk, restaurant, ticket-takers, pool workers and more.
Now, it’s down to five. John says the employees are, “not only managing, they’re preparing the property and doing the things we’ve decided to do and need to get done. These are people who’ve been with us for a long time, they have so much pride in the property.”
The theater has been dark this season, which is especially sad for Jackie, an actress who has written a number of the mystery and Christmas plays.
The Breeches Bar & Grille is only serving dinner a few nights a week. The inn has honored all pre-booked business, such as weddings.
“But we haven’t spent money advertising to book anything else because we’re winding down,” John says.
John’s wife, Kathy, has spent countless hours on the top floor of the Stone Mansion sorting through the theater archives. The family is hoping to donate some of the records to the Cumberland County Historical Society, unless the new owner wants to keep them.
John has been getting letters from former guests, saying how much the Allenberry means to them. One woman whose husband recently passed away said the resort was home to his happiest experiences.
“And I didn’t even know these people,” John marvels. “The other day I ran into someone I went to high school with. He said he came to Allenberry and my dad hired him in the kitchen, and it changed his life. He ran a restaurant in Gettysburg for six or seven years, worked for Gettysburg College, and then got hired at a university in Florida. He spent his whole career in Florida and had a great career. He came back just to visit the property one last time.”
No doubt John will be back to visit himself in a few months, after the sale has gone through.
It’s sad to move on from a place the Heinze family has been their entire lives, of course. But there’s always something to be said for fresh starts.
And the Heinzes believe the Allenberry could use one.
“No one who comes here doesn’t see it. No one who steps foot here doesn’t recognize the magic,” Jackie says.
“You just need to get it into the right hands to operate it well and keep bringing in as many as possible.”