A Bible college and Christian retreat house for the last 26 years, the 46-acre site has been sold. Plans are barely in the works, but the new owners are committed to making the property a tourist designation again, much to the delight of Murrieta officials and southwest Riverside County.
Thanks in part to the pandemic, Murrieta recently had a 43-acre spa, and the resort dropped into its lap.
Local officials have long wanted to see Murrieta Hot Springs – a natural hot springs that began attracting people from all over the western United States more than 100 years ago – transformed back into a major tourist destination.
Now, with new ownership, and renamed The Murrieta Hot Springs Resort & Spa, the property will again be a destination for out-of-town visitors.
“Murrieta Hot Springs has the potential to be the number one tourist attraction in southwest Riverside County,” said Scott Agajanian, Murrieta’s deputy director of economic development. “It could transform the entire market. I think it’s impossible to predict how much of an impact this project could have.”
For the past 26 years, the property – reportedly worth $50 million – was owned and operated by the Calvary Chapel Christian Center and Bible College, which has used the site for retreats, seminars, and classroom instruction.
But COVID-19 convinced Calvary Chapel officials that they should sell the facility. They did not need a large resort to conduct their activities, said Scott Agajanian, Murrieta’s deputy director of economic development.
Olympus Real Estate Holdings LTD, the owner of The Springs Resort & Spa in Pagosa Springs, Colo., bought the Murrieta Hot Springs for an undisclosed sum.
The property remains in escrow, said Justin A. Esayian, senior vice president with The Hoffman Co., in Irvine and the project’s listing agent.
Multiple suitors emerged last year when it became known the former resort was up for sale. Murrieta, which is committed to bringing more tourism jobs and tourism-generated dollars into the region, identified Olympus last year as a “strong potential candidate” to purchase and redevelop the property, according to a staff report released in June.
Murrieta offered a major incentive to help make sure a deal between Olympus and Calvary was reached: the city agreed to a 15-year, 50-50 split of the transit occupancy tax with the resort management company.
During that 15-year period, the resort and spa are expected to generate $29.9 million in transit occupancy tax revenue, of which Murrieta would receive about $14.9 million, according to the staff report.
After that, Murrieta will get all of the revenue generated by the resort and spa’s transit occupancy tax, as cities routinely do. By year 15, when the agreement expires, the resort and spa are expected to pump about $50 million into the local economy, the staff report states.
The city would also receive sales tax revenue from dining, retail, and spa development, and revenue created by more tourist traffic. Murrieta will not share any of that revenue with Olympus.
The plan is to begin converting the property into a resort next June after the Bible College has completed its academic year. The conversion is expected to take approximately two years, Agajanian said.
Details regarding what changes might be made to the property haven’t been announced. Officials with the new ownership group did not return calls seeking comment.
Done correctly, a modern Murrieta Hot Springs could be a major tourist destination, one that could easily attract people from Northern California, Nevada, and Mexico.
“I think ‘ambitious’ is the right word for what we’re going to do here,” Agajanian said. ”It’s a huge undertaking.”
It’s also a return to Murrieta’s past.
Located on the east side of the city in the 39000 block of Murrieta Hot Springs Road, Murrieta Hot Springs was purchase in 1902 by Fritz Guenther, a German immigrant who moved to New York after escaping the Franco-Prussian War.
During the next 30 years, Guenther and his family developed Murrieta Hot Springs into a world-class attraction. In 1950, Webster Avenue has renamed Murrieta Hot Springs Road so patrons would have an easier time finding the site.
In the 1970s, the Guenther family sold Murrieta Hot Springs to Irvin Kahn, an attorney, and real estate developer, for $1.35 million. Kahn, who visited the resort and spa as a child, oversaw upgrades and an expansion of the facility.
In 1983, a 300-member organization called Alive Polarity bought the resort and turned it into a commune that prohibited meat, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and television. Members, most of whom had given up their careers and committed their lives to the commune, lived in the hotel rooms, ate in the cafeteria, and maintained the property.
Following that, the resort was briefly a cancer clinic. In 1995, it was bought by Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, which upgraded and maintained the property while preserving much of its historic characteristics, according to the city history of the site.
Now it’s on its way back to being a tourist destination in a market that already attracts its share of tourist dollars. In 2019, Riverside County had nearly $4 million in taxable sales related to travel, according to a study commissioned by Visit California, a non-profit in Sacramento that promotes state tourism.
That was 9.8 percent of the $40.6 million in taxable sales the county generated that year, the study found.
A restored and modernized resort would add much to those numbers, said Patrick Ellis, president, and chief executive officer of the Murrieta-Wildomar Chamber of Commerce.
“It could have a huge financial impact, and not just with tourists,” said Ellis, who is also the chief executive officer of the chamber’s Explore Murrieta, which promotes tourism in southwest Riverside County. “It attracted a lot of people in the 1920s and 1930s, and it would attract a lot of people today.”
Rumors have circulated that Olympus might build two hotels on the site – one it would own, the other it would lease – but nothing has been confirmed, according to Ellis.
“You’re talking about 40 acres near Interstate 15,” Ellis said. “There’s a lot of potential and a lot of possibilities.”