Project superintendent Spencer Blair, of ECI Construction, and Allenberry Resort co-owner Mike Kennedy are spearheading the renovation and new construction of the landmark Cumberland County property, which is slated to reopen in June. – (Photo / Amy Spangler)
The smell of freshly laid macadam filled the April air as three people debated how to hang new signs at the Allenberry Resort. The arrow-shaped wooden fixtures are designed to point visitors to a few of the 22 buildings at the bucolic Cumberland County getaway, which is itself finding a new direction after a change in ownership.
Mechanicsburg native Mike Kennedy is one of several investors helping find the right path for the 57-acre property, known mostly for its playhouse. His vision is to create a hidden gem that offers guests and locals alike dining options, live entertainment and activities ranging from archery to fly fishing against the peaceful backdrop of the trout-rich Yellow Breeches.
It will be a place where there is always something going on, he said, but also a place where guests can savor doing nothing at all.
Mixing new and old
Kennedy walked through the Allenberry last year on a nostalgia-fueled whim after the previous owners announced their plans to auction off the property. The visit was enough to convince him he wanted to be the one to introduce the resort to the next generation of people seeking a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Legend has it that frontiersman Davy Crockett’s uncle first settled the property in 1785. It passed through several other owners, many of them farmers, before entering into the hands of Charles A.B. Heinze in 1944.
Heinze was “a real visionary,” Kennedy said, and opened the Allenberry Playhouse on the property in 1949. The theater soon became the resort’s focal point, developing a name for itself in the theater scene and drawing bus-trip visitors from around the region.
Heinzes’ children, John, Mary Jane and Jere, eventually took ownership of the business.
“The most remarkable thing about Allenberry is it did change over the years, as to buildings built and so on, but the atmosphere and the ambiance did not change,” said Kathleen Heinze, John Heinze’s wife. “Somehow even as new buildings were built and the general business was enlarged, the property still managed to keep the almost bucolic serenity that the Heinze family had seen here since 1944.”
Kathleen Heinze’s time with the resort dates back to 1964, when she married John. Since then, she has watched guests enjoy some of the happiest times of their lives at weddings, reunions and even casual tennis matches. She made friends and watched the resort boom in its peak years.
But times changed. The buses full of visitors from locales as far away as Baltimore and New Jersey grew less frequent, and, by the early 2000s, the aging Heinze siblings were eyeing retirement. Many of Charles Heinze’s grandchildren had moved away, and none wanted to come back to run the family business.
The mid-2000s real estate crash heightened the urgency for change.
“With the recession in 2008, discretionary spending was limited. And we paid a price for that,” Kathleen Heinze said.
A plan to build homes on a 59-acre tract connected to the resort also fell through as the economy struggled, worsening the business’s finances.
The family started looking for a buyer for the resort, but, for several years, none stepped forward with the right offer.
By summer 2016, putting the family business up for auction seemed like the only remaining option — until Kennedy and his business partners swooped in just days before the auction date with a winning offer.
“It was a pretty random buy,” said Kennedy, a railroad contractor by trade.
He declined to say how much his group has spent on the property and subsequent renovations.
Kennedy, 49, has lived in Cumberland County his entire life and grew up admiring the local landmark tucked off of Boiling Springs Road in Monroe Township. He points to the resort’s Facebook page — 6,000 fans strong — as evidence that many other locals feel the same.
Among those locals are John and Kathleen Heinze. Although the other siblings no longer live locally — Jere is in Alabama and Mary Jane resides in Canada part of the year — John and Kathleen need only to walk through their garden and down a small hill to watch progress at the resort next door.
They couldn’t be more thrilled with what they’re seeing, Kathleen Heinze said.
Was it hard to let go of the business where the family made, and helped create, so many memories for so many years?
“No, not really,” Kathleen Heinze said with a laugh. “Allenberry had just reached a stage where it needed a new lease on life.”
Becoming a destination
Allenberry’s transformation started not long after the new owners signed the paperwork.
Overgrown brush was torn out to reveal a view of the Yellow Breeches. Carpet was removed from a four-suite house on the property, and a chestnut floor underneath was polished back to life. A building constructed in 1989 was razed to make way for outdoor dining in the shadow of a 19th-century stone barn. A former rose garden will soon nurture herbs for the on-site restaurants’ chefs.
Kennedy wants the resort’s new direction to build on the efforts of the Heinzes, who, Kennedy said, put “a lot of heart and soul” into the Allenberry while catering to modern tastes.
The finished resort will boast two restaurants, 75 guest rooms, corporate meeting areas, a new pool and a spa. Activities on the property will include kayaking, skeet shooting, archery, a ropes course and zip lining.
Allenberry’s owners also hope to bolster the long-established tradition of catch-and-release fly fishing on the Yellow Breeches. The resort is working with TCO Outdoors, which recently opened alongside the Children’s Lake in nearby Boiling Springs, to attract fishing fans, in addition to overseeing efforts to make about a one-mile stretch of the breeches deeper, colder and friendlier to the trout stocked there.
The property’s famous playhouse will remain a fixture with the debut of a full-service bar and concessions area. “Shrek,” the first performance under the new ownership, is scheduled for July. Boiling Springs-based Keystone Theatrics is overseeing programming at the theater and throughout the resort, which hopes to add acts like comedians and live music to its repertoire.
Plans are also underway to revive the proposed 128-home neighborhood adjacent to the resort.
Then there are the weddings. The first is planned for May 20, and one is scheduled for just about every weekend in fall 2017 and spring 2018, said events manager Karen Ocker.
She and Kennedy both feel the revamped resort has the potential to draw visitors from as far as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
That’s good news for Cumberland County, said Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. CAEDC has long worked to attract tourists from major cities within a few-hours drive of Central Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York and Washington.
Bowser noted Allenberry’s new owners expect out-of-town visitors to the renovated resort will spend about $10 million annually in the region.
“The town of Boiling Springs has always been a destination to promote to visitors with existing assets like hiking, fishing and quaint dining and shopping,” CAEDC said in a statement. “Allenberry historically has, and will continue to be, the overnight anchor for those visits.”
Kennedy plans to hit marketing hard when renovations wrap up in early summer, although some features, like the smaller of the two on-site restaurants, are already open.
Amid the yet-to-be-hung signs, drying macadam and sawdust-filled air at the Allenberry now, Kennedy sees the emergence of a jewel in the county he has called home his entire life.
“I just think it’s sort of a gem the rest of the country hasn’t figured out yet.”