ROCKVALE — It’s one of the first questions people ask Cody Hoefle when they find out he’s buying the Fort Rockvale Restaurant and Casino.
What are you going to do with the Ferris wheel out front?
Hoefle said he can’t restart the century-old ride because of liability concerns, but it will remain on the 20-acre property. The 32-year-old petroleum engineer has other big plans for the property, but he knows better than to remove the most recognizable symbol from the junction of U.S. highways 212 and 310, 12 miles south of Laurel.
“Everybody knows about Rockvale,” he said.
Hoefle, of Billings, has an agreement to buy the 20-acre Fort Rockvale Restaurant and Casino property from owner Todd Bell. Hoefle said Monday that he got a "green light" on the final piece of the deal, state approval for the transferal of the liquor license.
The deal is expected to close in September, and an Oct. 1 grand reopening is tentatively scheduled, Hoefle said.
The sale price is not being disclosed. The property had been listed for $5 million.
Once the deal is completed, Hoefle has big plans to improve the Carbon County property that has seen better days. The name will change to the Fort at Rockvale — a nod to the its origins in the middle of the last century.
The first priority is reopening the bar and casino that has sat closed for eight years in the unincorporated community. Hoefle said he plans to add 20 gaming machines, flat-screen TV sets, a liquor store and eight ceiling-mounted drafts for local beers.
Next are renovations to the restaurant, changing the atmosphere from roadside cafe to destination eatery. The highway averages 11,000 car trips daily, Hoefle said, and he hopes to capture more of that traffic.
“It’s going to be more of a sit down, get a cocktail, listen to some music, then come over here,” Hoefle said while sitting inside the bar.
Jake’s Restaurant on Billings West End would be a good model for the Fort at Rockvale, he said.
Next year, Hoefle said he plans to work on the spacious patio, which is a mish-mash of kids’ entertainment and music venue. He said he will evaluate what to do with the putting greens and neon lights that make the place stand out at night.
Long-term, Hoefle said he’d like to build a campground at the property, maybe even a hotel.
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Hoefle is already assembling a team to relaunch the business. Ron Kangas, of Billings, is the general manager, and he brings 40-plus years of experience in restaurants and bars, mostly in Yellowstone County.
Allan Ness, a former elementary school teacher, is the operations manager. He’s also working on marketing materials, including a new logo — a wagon wheel with “Est. 1958” written underneath.
The business has 18 employees, and Kangas expects he’ll add a half dozen to operate the bar and casino.
Hoefle said he became intrigued with the property after learning the history of the area. Located at the junction of Rock Creek and the Clarks Fork River, Rockvale was a major trail hub in the frontier days for horses and wagons.
The junction was part of the Bozeman Trail used by traders, trappers and other pioneers, and the town was once a bustling stop along the prairie.
The restaurant, originally called the Fort Restaurant at Rockvale, Hoefle said, was built in 1958, and it’s remained a staple of the Highway 212 corridor even as the town has faded away.
“This history is what people have loved about this place. It’s coming back. It’s coming back better than ever,” Hoefle said.
The property also includes storage sheds and other structures.
Bell, the current owner, bought the place in the 1990s and has been responsible for most of its unique features. He found the Ferris wheel in Wyoming and even ran it for a few years, finally deciding that maybe, just maybe, alcohol and a rickety carnival ride shouldn’t mix.
The Paul Bunyan-esque statue of the cowboy with the rifle was another gem Bell picked up in the Cowboy State. He moved it three times before settling on the best location, right at the front entrance, greeting customers.
Bell lives in the area and said he’s selling because he’s ready to retire. Closing day will likely be an emotional one for the 59-year-old, who acknowledges business has slumped since the casino closed but had a great heyday.
Bell added that he thinks he found the right buyer to make the restaurant successful again.
“They are making this a destination location, rather than just a place on the road. … I was very fortunate to find such good people,” Bell said.