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Originally published July 11, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified July 12, 2011 at 9:38 AM

Lava-lamp idea for Soap Lake is refueled

Soap Lake, a tiny town in Central Washington, is trying to erect a 60-foot-tall lava lamp. The effort is led by an Everett architect and part-time Soap Lake resident.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes "I doubt a giant lava lamp in itself would bring in $1 million in revenue in any... Read more
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quotes How about a giant bong too? Read more

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SOAP LAKE, Grant County —

It might more fittingly belong in wacky Fremont, but the people of tiny Soap Lake aren't laughing.

If the promoters have their way, those who drive along Highway 17 that cuts through the town will see an amazing sight: a 60-foot-tall lava lamp. A computer and projector would broadcast images, making it appear as if there is viscous, bubbling goo inside the lamp. There would be a light show every day at dusk.

Soap Lake. Lava lamp. Isn't this an old story?

Sort of.

Almost a decade ago, Soap Lake, a remote town in Central Washington, decided it needed something to draw tourists to the lake with its supposedly mystical healing powers. A Target store in New York had a solution. It was getting rid of its 50-foot-tall mechanical lava lamp, with real bubbling goo on the inside, and offered it to Soap Lake, and even paid to haul it west.

It became big news, with stories broadcast around the world, how this little town in Washington figured out a way to revitalize itself and wring money out of tourists en route to Grand Coulee Dam.

But the Target lava lamp lies in pieces in a town storage yard. There wasn't the money, nor the ambition, to try to put it together. There are no plans for the old lava lamp.

Then came Andy Kovach, an Everett architect and part-time Soap Lake resident, and his wife, Nell. The lava-lamp idea was reborn in 2010.

"The entire town's behind it. It's phenomenal," said Kovach. "It would be like the Space Needle."

He walks among the lava-lamp rubble in the storage yard. "It looks pretty sad out here," he said, "but it kept the idea alive."

Kovach figures it would cost about $1 million to build a new lava lamp, which would sit on a knob overlooking Soap Lake. He wants to spend another $1 million to build a half-mile interpretive trail that would connect the town's two beaches.

The money would come from a combination of corporate sponsorship, grants and community donations. Lava Lite LLC, the company that holds the Lava Lamp trademark, has given the city the rights to build and name the lava lamp.

"We like it. We haven't seen anything like it before, and it's a unique idea," said Stephanie Frey, marketing manager for Lava Lite of Elmhurst, Ill. "Good luck to them to get it up and running."

Mayor: "It will work"

There's not much wealth in Soap Lake. There are boarded-up storefronts and broken-down houses.

But it does have a new community theater, paid for by the community, and a little golf course in the middle of town, the Lava Links, funded by donations.

Soap Lake even has an art museum.

Soap Lake Mayor Wayne Hovde is a fan of the lava-lamp idea. "It's a crazy idea ... but I'm sold on it. It will work. I do believe it will happen."

He said every day 4,300 vehicles pass through Soap Lake, a town of 1,515 people, many on their way to Grand Coulee Dam. If 10 percent of the cars stop and the occupants of each spent $20, "that's a lot of money coming in."

Only about $200,000 has been raised so far, said Hovde, and a lot of that is pledges, not cash in hand, but he said a fundraising campaign hasn't begun. "We're optimistic people," he said.

Brent Blake, an artist who runs the Soap Lake Art Museum, is the father of the original Soap Lake lava-lamp idea.

"It was a major dream of mine to get a lava lamp at Soap Lake," Blake said. "Soap Lake is like a David Lynch movie, like 'Twin Peaks.' You couldn't cast a bunch of characters better."

Blake came up with the lava lamp donated by Target in 2002. His wild dream became a national story, and was seen by Target. When Target called him offering its 50-foot lamp the store officials said, "It's yours, come and get it."

Blake responded that Soap Lake was a poor community, and Target offered to deliver the lamp, all 48,000 pounds, on six flatbed trucks.

"I got it but I got nudged to the curb," said Blake. "It languished and now it's in a dirt pile. It's very sad and unfortunate. Part of my grief is that's not how you deal with a gift from a corporation trying to do good things for the community."

The site where it was to sit still has the sign, Giant Lava Motion Lamp. It was left up as part of the town's history, said Kovach.

He said Soap Lake simply didn't have the money to erect the Target lamp.

"I know Fremont would accept it with open arms and put it up," Blake said. "The idea went around the world. Andy wants to keep things alive and came up with a feasible idea that could be done. It's still a great investment and would be like the Space Needle of Eastern Washington."

Blake thinks the lava lamp would fit in well with Soap Lake's healing waters, which are touted as reducing stress.

Blake's Target lamp would have been a real lava lamp with the goo inside. Kovach's lamp would look like a lava lamp but instead of the goo, he plans to use laser projectors to create the same effect. It could even be customized for the holidays, said Kovach, for example, depicting a Santa Claus at Christmas.

Tim Ray, a local farmer, was so taken with the lava-lamp concept that he carved a giant lava-lamp crop circle in his field, 1,000 feet long and 400 feet wide. Then he photographed it from the air.

He agreed to carve the crop circle in 2007 when his friend Blake asked him to, to get a little attention for his passion for the Soap Lake lava lamp. He said it took about four hours; Blake wanted it left for weeks, Ray said two days. After all, he had crops to plant.

"This isn't crazy. It fits into the quirkiness of Soap Lake," said Ray, a California transplant. "A little town like Soap Lake needs something to keep it intact. We need something for someone to stop and see in Soap Lake."

Looking for funds

The biggest question is whether the little town can raise the $1 million to $2 million to erect the lamp and build the interpretive trail. Supporters are hoping for corporate contributions from throughout the Columbia Basin.

Gary Gregg, who owns the local liquor store, calls the lava-lamp idea "awesome."

"It will bring a lot of people to town. The lava lamp has the opportunity to bring in new blood and fresh ideas," Gregg said.

Soap Lake has long been a destination for those soaking in the lake's waters, thought to be therapeutic.

Eileen Beckwith, a longtime Soap Lake resident and retired educator who started soaplakeforlocals.com, believes the lava lamp will be built.

The website pictures a group of people covered in Soap Lake mud and says, "This site is for all of you whose hearts are in Soap Lake, whether you reside here or not."

"We see it as a real beacon for the whole Columbia Basin and a great way to feature the Coulee corridor scenic byway," said Beckwith. "You have Grand Coulee Dam with its laser-light show and down the same corridor at the south end of Soap Lake you'll have the lava lamp with its own light show."

She said Kovach has started a new movement with the lamp.

"The old slate was wiped clean," Beckwith said. "Things are moving forward and it's pretty exciting."

But there are some detractors. Local Realtor Allen DuPuy worries there won't be the money to maintain the lava lamp and he doesn't buy the economic boon that supporters envision. He said it may become a political issue in this election year.

Kovach is undeterred by the criticism, believing it is embraced by much of the town.

He'd love to have it erected by 2013, the 50th anniversary of the lava lamp.

As for the idea this lamp might be perfect for Fremont?

"We need a sister city," said Kovach. "Fremont would be perfect."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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