A Different Kind of Economic Stimulus Plan

Times Staff Writer

Soap Lake’s heyday as a spa town is long past, and, here, along what has become a faded byway in eastern Washington’s Grand Coulee country, the present day is very bleak.

“The city’s broke, practically,” said Soap Lake Mayor Ken Lee. “We have no industry, no tax base. We need to do something.”

Something, yes, but a lava lamp?

Lee and many of the town’s 1,700 residents see a bright future, one built around a 60-foot bubbling lava lamp complete with viewing platform.What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, and what the Space Needle is to Seattle, they say, the giant Lava Lamp will be to Soap Lake.

That is the hope, anyway, behind the City Council’s recent vote in favor of erecting a lamp in the middle of town.

It is a long shot, officials admit, but they’re willing to gamble on the lamp to draw tourists back to a place that reached its high point in the early part of the last century. Then, people came from around the Northwest to bathe in the mineral-laden lake waters, but the town has since fallen on some very hard times.


The community “is no longer bustling, but in fact needs redevelopment,” states the Web site devoted to Soap Lake’s proposed lava tower,

Half the businesses downtown have closed and more than two-thirds of the people in this community 150 miles east of Seattle are classified as low-income. On a recent day, as a rattling wind blew down Main Street, the busiest place was the food bank.

So along came a proposal by Brent Blake and John Glassco, two residents, calling for a lamp at least 60 feet high, constructed of reinforced glass, with contents similar to those found in conventional lava lamps, including colored, treated water.

An observation deck halfway up, they say, would provide handsome views of the town and the lake.

“It’s something to remind people that this place was all about soothing and healing,” said Blake, a design consultant who grew up in the area. “I think it’s something that will draw people back and revitalize the town.”

But the city doesn’t have the money to build it. Cost estimates for a lava tower range from $1 million to as much as $25 million. There is widespread hope that a private developer or a philanthropist might like the idea enough to pay for it, but that hasn’t happened.

And though county and state tourism officials say they are willing to offer guidance on Soap Lake’s tourism strategy, state or federal funds for a lava lamp “would be pretty difficult to come by, especially in this budget climate,” said George Sharp, the tourism development manager in the state’s Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

Nonetheless, many people cling to the vision of a lava lamp at the center of town in Soap Lake, which takes its name from the mineral-rich, soapy-feeling waters and frothy “suds” that build up at the edge of the lake on blustery days. They’ve set up a private foundation, called SoLaLaLa (for Soap Lake Lava Lamp) to solicit funds and maintain the lamp -- if it’s built.

The lava lamp is perhaps best known as a psychedelic accessory found in many a college dorm room in the 1960s and 1970s. The promoters say it would symbolize two important things about Soap Lake:

The lava lamp would remind people of the huge prehistoric lava flow that shaped the region -- Soap Lake is surrounded by lava rock. And the lamp’s supposed soothing, curative qualities should bring to mind similar qualities in the lake’s water; in the past, people with ailments including arthritis and psoriasis came to spas here for treatments.

“This place could be just like Calistoga, if only people knew it was here,” said Dave McNamara, a retired printer. “So if a lava lamp gets people to stop and look around, then great. Soap Lake needs something that will make people notice it. We need a kick in the butt.”

The owner of the Inn at Soap Lake, Sandra Garnett, also hopes the lava lamp could help reclaim the town’s glory days.

“This used to be a booming place,” Garnett said. “There were spas and saunas and all sorts of masseuses. A lava lamp could remind people of all that. It’s so off the wall, it could be a great idea. It could attract a lot of people who might otherwise never think of coming here.”

Though the inn is not yet a full-service spa, its rooms allow guests to choose between mineral-rich lake water or municipal water for their baths.

And Carmen Eckhart, the bookkeeper at Don’s Restaurant, a popular hangout, said: “Anything that will bring people to town would be great. They’d come to see that, and then they’d stay to have a drink or eat or swim in the lake.”

Others, congregating outside the food bank, seemed distinctly irritated by the idea.

“It’s just so stupid,” said Ed Pruitt, a retired paper mill worker. “So maybe someone will stop to see it once. But then why would they come back? I don’t see how in the long run this helps anything.”

Some say the tower could be marketed as “the world’s largest lava lamp”; they say tying it in to other world’s-largest attractions in Washington state could help put Soap Lake on a tourist circuit.

For example, at Coulee Dam, just up the road, residents boast of having “the world’s largest sand pile,” a byproduct of construction of the huge hydroelectric project. Long Beach boasts of the “world’s largest frying pan.”

But none of the fame will come to Soap Lake without some investment, people here concede.

“The lamp’s a fun idea,” said Terry Brewer, executive director of the nonprofit Grant County Economic Development Council. “But we need someone with some capital who’s willing to spend it.”