When did you purchase the Inn?
Is that when you came to Bellingham?
We actually bought our house here in 2002. It was one of those things where the stars just aligned. Our daughter, Kelsey was going to grad school at Western. In the mid-70’s when Kelsey was just a toddler we vacationed out here and thought, it could be a great place to live here, but a job offer with a publishing company mid-west based kept us from making the move then. I remember thinking I should work in publishing a few years because it would look good on my resume.” After twenty-four years in publishing, I didn’t need a resume!
The timing in moving here is also generational. We would not make good snowbirds. We wanted to move someplace where we would be comfortable year round and to be young enough to be part of the community, participate and own a business maybe.
Gene and I owned property in Fargo, North Dakota and and when he started looking at property here and The Fairhaven Village Inn building kept popping up. He liked the location. He liked the look—it was new but built with respect to historic reference and that was important to him. He would say, “Well if we buy the inn, we’d be buying the hotel business too. And that’s when he started looking at me like ‘huh, you look like you need a job’.
I have had people ask me, “Has it always been your dream to own a hotel?” and I say, “Absolutely not. It never crossed my mind.”
However, as a business traveller I had some impressions about what feels good and I just wanted to replicate that look and feel here. I needed to gain a lot of industry experience quickly and it really was baptism by fire. In the first few years, Gene and I spent hundreds of hours here.
Initially, we did part of every operation—housekeeping, front desk, breakfast room. We really learned the business from the roots up. So, now when a housekeeping process changes, I have some relationship to how that works, what kind of time and energy it takes, and how it affects the system. We are our marketing department! One of the really big advantages of having a small group of people who understand the mission and want to be a part of it is that It is fun to engage them in things like the marketing effort. I might say, “I’m exploring doing X. What do you think of that”? I ask guest services folks, housekeeping, facilities, the breakfast person—I want to know what they think because they know as much about the guest relationship as I do and probably more. I’m just not bright enough to do it all myself.
What has really served us well is that Gene and I came into this venture with a distinct set of skills. All of those skills are needed here. Still at the end of the day, sometimes we just need to draw straws. [Laughs]. We have definitely honed our skills over these twelve years. Gratefully, we have developed employees who are not only capable but willing to take on major parts of those kinds of things.
So when we bought the Inn, there was one full-time employee. The rest were part-time and most of them were Western students. That’s practical for a small operation in lots ways but it didn’t fill the mindset, the critical mass or the dedication that it takes to really grow. Now we have six full-time people and depending on the time of year we will have another five or six part-time people.
We have to swim with the big fish in the hotel business, you know. So we need to be leaner and more responsive to maintain a competitive edge. My competition friends who work for large hotel chains can struggle with restrictions and a cumbersome decision process that hinders them.For us , like most small businesses, it is a blessing and a curse—you get to do it yourself but you have to do it yourself.
Fairhaven has changed a lot since you moved here. What are the changes that you have noticed most?
In 2004 Village Books was not in their new building and the Village Green was justin infancy. Now more people live in the Fairhaven district. It’s more vital. People are working here, eating here, reading at Village Books. Folks are out and about in the evenings, shopping using the grocery store and banks. I think that has helped Fairhaven evolve organically into it’s own little urban setting.
We built the building next door last May. South Bay Suites has eleven apartments total on the third and fourth floors, 22 executive offices on the second floor and commercial spaces on the first floor. It had been an odd shaped gravel dumpster site. It became, certainly, the counties most expensive dumpster site and it was like that for the first 10 ten years we owned it. Then doing retirement planning and the professionals would say “what are you going to do with the gravel lot?” Troy Muljat said he could sell it for us but wondered if we had considered……well you see what happened!
Troy’s wonderful. Then he suggested that we do the prep—get the zoning confirmed, etc.—and then it will be stronger for us to go to market, but soon he was creating proforma for us. Interestingly enough, this lot didn’t even appear on the city’s map of buildable lots. It was such an odd shape, nobody thought it was developable.
That’s a very different venture. We had never built a new building before this one. Though we’ve done residential and commercial projects, and even renovations on historic buildings in Fargo, this was new.
Wow. And there’s a lot of stuff over there now. Offices, apartments, Ovn, and One Paper Boat.
Yes. There’s one spot between Ovn and One Paper Boat that is still available. I’m dreaming about a juice bar in there, but haven’t yet been able to make that happen. There is also a few thousand square feet of west facing commercial on the first floor available. Those spaces have fabulous natural light with a Fairhaven Harbor view.
We also moved in South Bay Suites ourselves.
It was in the back of our mind that we might want to move in there someday. But as the building evolved, and we got immersed in the project we just couldn’t stay away.
That’s a good sign. If you’re involved in the design and construction and you can’t help but move in yourself, I think that says you’ve done good work.
Yeah! We had a beautiful house up the hill and wonderful neighbors, who are still close by. But living in Fairhaven is a much different experience. We felt like we lived here before, since we spent so much time here, but now having the resident experience is really neat.
When our house sold and before South Bay Suites was completed, we had to get a room at the Inn! We have a new appreciation for what it’s like for guests to stay here. The Inn has a suite with a master bedroom, and a dining room/living room area. It’s about twice the size of our other guest rooms, so nobody was feeling sorry for us. [laughs]
Then when South Bay Suites was completed in May 2015, we moved into our new apartment, I realized . . . I have to cook! We got pretty spoiled over here, that’s for sure.
What does Bellingham need? Other than a juice bar in Fairhaven.
We need more places for people to live.
Bellingham cannot support current or expanded industry, services, or opportunities unless we have enough affordable places for people.
I’m not a planning expert at all, but I can tell that the city struggles to develop a clear, consistent, future-visioned plan. We’re suffering now with the results of that, I think.
I think our Bellingham schools are wonderful. We need to continue to have options at all levels of education. We have some very strong academics, but I wonder if we could benefit from some more technical and trade skills education.
Not everyone needs or wants the traditional higher education model. Integrating more technical education and skills training would be a very smart thing for Bellingham to invest in and develop.
I think the other thing Bellingham needs is a way for our community to experience the water. It’s a huge part of our economy, experience, and enjoyment in this city, but we have very limited ways for folks to interact with it.
I understand there are elements of that in the new waterfront redevelopment plan. That’s going dedication and lots of effort to execute.
What’s the best kept secret in Bellingham?
How wonderful it is here!
Though we both grew up in ice and snow, we didn’t want to grow older in that climate. Our year round temperature difference here is only thirty or forty degrees. Much of the country has temperature variance of more than a hundred degrees. Think about how this more temperate climate affects the productivity of our economy. All we get is a little rain….well..sometimes a lot of rain!