Earlier this year, Hunter Riebl drove past the former Creekside Retreat on State Road 46 East, like he usually does, when he happened to be thinking about different trainings for fire departments.
When he looked at the former hotel property he thought it would be a perfect place for volunteers to do trainings. It has small roads and pathways between buildings and a fire hydrant on the property.
Riebl is a firefighter with Brown County Volunteer Fire Department. The department responds to calls in the Town of Nashville and all of Washington Township including two-thirds of the Brown County State Park and a portion of Yellowwood State Forest.
After sharing a post to Facebook, someone put him in contact with Voland-Hammond Property LLC, the owners of the property.
As fate would have it, the owners were looking for someone to whom they could donate the property.
After a few meetings, the volunteer fire department now owns the property — with ten buildings on 47 acres — to use however they see fit.
The owners of the property had reached out to other groups, including the Sycamore Land Trust. The land trust would require the entire property be returned to nature, demolishing the buildings and ripping up the roads and turning it into a sort of field.
The buildings will still be demolished, but over time, as the fire department conducts training on practical skills, like extinguishing live fires and learning how to access roofs with ladder trucks.
The donation was agreed upon for training purposes, with a facet of the agreement being that the property be used for public benefit. Not only will BCVFD train their firefighters there, but they allow other departments in and out of the county to take advantage of the spot.
“Hopefully we can get some great use out of the property,” Riebl said.
The former hotel sits on land that is subject to significant flooding, which Riebl said contributed to the owners wanting to donate the property.
The owner of Creekside Retreat decided to shut the hotel down permanently in March of 2020 after weathering three major floods since 2015.
In March of 2020, floodwaters surrounded the lodging complex and conference center off State Road 46 East following a heavy rain the night of March 19. The hotel was already closed due to pandemic stay-at-home orders, so no guests were there at the time.
The retreat buildings were apartments before, heavily damaged by the 2008 flood. In 2014, the buildings were renovated and changed over to short-term lodging. Within the first year of opening in the summer of 2015, Creekside Retreat flooded. It went through another round of renovations. Then, it flooded again in February 2019.
“Our owner made a decision that a third time was too much, and that he had invested so much money into it, he wasn’t wanting to do it a third time,” explained General Manager Vicki Blake in 2020.
“We had been rated a five-star property, so we, of course, each time tried to replace it at the same standard we had. It’s costly. We do have flood insurance, but it does not cover everything. … It’s very costly even with flood insurance.”
Blake said in 2020 that Creekside Retreat never fully recovered from the flood in 2019. The hotel reopened that June and built its regular overnight business back up, but struggled to attract some groups back to the hotel since Blake had to cancel their reservations when the flood happened.
Blake was looking at 2020 as her time to rebuild, and then recoup losses starting in 2021. Then the pandemic hit, followed by the flash flood.
Owner Jim Hammond said in 2020 that they were exploring avenues for the property’s future.
‘All kinds of possibilities’
There are ten buildings on the property where Nashville Fire Department members will be able to receive training on practical skills.
BCVFD Chief Nick Kelp said that since there is not a dedicated training facility in the county for firefighters they have had to send volunteers to certification courses in other areas of the state.
“Our hope is to bring some of that closer to home,” he said.
Acquired facilities are few and far between, so their plan is to do as much in the ten buildings and surrounding property as possible, Kelp said.
Some training will be live fires, others will not. Firefighters will be able to take hoses and practice using ladders to get to roofs. They will learn about forcible entry into fires and will use a fog machine to simulate smoke to practice looking for victims.
“We don’t really care about tearing it up, eventually the buildings will come down,” Kelp said. “Basically anything training we want to do in these buildings we can do.”
Firefighters will be able to drive a truck up to a building, pull a hose line, go inside and crawl around, which is “incredibly beneficial,” Riebl said.
The acreage is also open for them to do expansive outdoor training, he added.
They can practice different scenarios and driving different types of vehicles.
“We have a Polaris Ranger. We can do wildfire training, rescuing people from different areas,” he said. “All kinds of possibilities there.”
Kelp said that when they’ve had to do training in places around town it’s easy to feel like they are in the way.
“It’ll be better to be out of the way and have our own space, not really interfere with other peoples’ activities,” he said.
Kelp’s vision for the property is to have a whole training field there with a burn tower or burn building — a permanent structure where they can set fires or do other types of training.
“We’re kind of still pinching ourselves,” Kelp said.
“Like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
With the fire department surviving off of donations, Riebl said that a contribution of this significance — for not only their department, but for all six volunteer departments in the county — is something that volunteer firefighters “can only dream of.”
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Riebl said.
The owners of the property also made a cash donation so the department would not lose money on the property while keeping up with its maintenance.
The department is 100 percent volunteer, relying on people to give their time, effort and money.
Riebl said that having this training facility will hopefully allow people to realize that they are a “serious fire department.”
“Just because we’re volunteer doesn’t mean that we just show up in our blue jeans and fight some fires some days,” he said.
“There are training hours, certifications. You have to be just as much as a fire fighter here as you do anywhere else.”
BCVFD does not have funding for their long-term plans, but welcome donations to their efforts. Emailing [email protected] is the best way to reach the department.
A lot of the development of their long-term training will be done by volunteers who will contribute to cutting trees, making trails and more.
They plan on utilizing the buildings in the spring when the weather is warmer, but will take volunteers to practice driving throughout the winter.
“We’re super grateful and super blessed to be able to have this opportunity,” Riebl said.
“I never in a million years would have imagined they would just give us the property. I was hoping they’d let us drive fire trucks on little roads and let us use the fire hydrant. To say we’re grateful is an understatement.”
Kelp said he was “floored” when Riebl told him about the donation initially.
“I think I was speechless for about five minutes,” he said. “The expectation of ‘Maybe we’ll get to borrow it for a night,’ to ‘Here you go, have it.’ … We just want to get to work and get some quality training and help our departments and other departments around the county.”