COOKSBURG, Pa. (EYT) – Cook Forest has added a new – and yet classic – destination back the tree-lined, winding River Road.
(Article by Andrew Bundy. Photos and Video by Prince Brooks)
After more than a decade, the Clarion River Lodge is reopening, and new owner and operator Victor Milko wants the community to know that this is a destination where individuals, couples, families, and friends can spend a whole evening.
“You’re not going to a restaurant, you’re going to The Lodge!” Milko said. “It’s a destination. Typically, you come to a restaurant, have your meal, eat, pay, leave. We want you to spend an evening with us. Have a drink in our pub, see some of the local artwork in our art studio, see some of the rooms, enjoy some of the nature out the windows. This is a place to go for the evening. You say, ‘We’ll go from 6 to 10.’ Have an evening away.”
The Clarion River Lodge reopened in December, capping off years of work for Milko, a local property owner in Cook Forest for over 25 years. Now, he spends his time running a destination for anyone.
“It was important to me in creating this place that when I made our menu and priced the rooms, that they were affordable,” Milko said. “Our meals hit from $12.99 to $29.99. In my 20 years of being here, I’ve seen other places open and close, and the local support from our neighbors here is why we’ll thrive. We would like to see both neighbors and guests traveling from a distance to enjoy the lodge. I envision a home for all.”
“A home for all” is how Milko operates the new Clarion River Lodge. The venue has 20 rooms – 16 queens and four kings. Since opening, the rooms have been booked solid. On a typical Saturday night, if he has 18 rooms booked, a dozen of them are from 20 minutes away and taking advantage of the one-night stay option.
“I’m a proponent of the one-night stay at the lodge, I understand that some people who have children and a job can’t get away for more than one night.”
The lodge opened in the middle of the Cook Forest off-season. That did not stop people from renting rooms and filling the dining area and pub and trudging through the snow to visit the lodge.
“On weekends, we do breakfast from 8 to 11 a.m.,” Milko said. “And, Wednesday through Sunday, the lodge is open for lunch and dinner at 11 a.m. We will bring people in and serve them any time after that. It is important to me to have staff in the kitchen any time we have someone come through the doors.”
Those doors are what he calls a gateway in the forest. The Clarion River Lodge is nestled along the river banks along River Road. Some first-time customers wonder if they missed a turn on the way there, but it is not far before they see the lodge in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
“Often we hear from people driving down River Road that they thought they were lost,” Milko said. “But, then they see the lights and find us, then it’s like an oasis in the forest. On Friday and Saturday nights, we don’t have a spot in our parking lot. People park all the way down to River Road. I wanted people to come for the ride along River Road and find this beautiful entrance and be greeted by warm and caring people.”
Part of a successful business is building the right team.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the team I’ve assembled,” he said. “Currently, we have 20 team members, between full and part-time. We didn’t have the hiccups that most people talk about with hiring. We didn’t have those challenges. We have a team meeting, and the first conversation is about respect, and we have an open forum when we speak. We value each other’s opinions. It’s a fun place to work, and everyone is a professional.”
Even during construction, Milko saw how important the Clarion River Lodge was to members of the community. During construction and after opening, Milko heard stories about the Clarion River Lodge and saw the excitement in his neighbors. People would stop and get out of their cars, telling Milko about their experiences with the Clarion River Lodge.
“To see their faces, to see their expressions, to feel their support, and hear their stories, that really filled my gas tank up,” Milko said. “That was the fuel I burned late at night when I was working. It’s something I was going to get to share with a lot of people that had great times here in the past.”
The Clarion River Lodge may be open, but Milko is not done expanding what the lodge can be. His vision for the lodge keeps growing.
“I look at this as a living, breathing thing,” he said. “This is going to take on so much more complexity this summer with so many folks coming off the riverbank. We have a beautiful riverbank, and there’s so much more that I want to do. I see a lot of growth that will happen in a few years. I love the outdoor arena, we’re doing a lot of outdoor music. There’s a lot of room for growth.”
But for now, the Clarion River Lodge is open and a destination for people to come and spend their evenings.