Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How Alaska Garden Gate B&B Began

Everyone's story of how they came to Alaska is unique and usually quirky or odd. A number of times it involves running from the law or from lost love. I suppose my story is along those same lines, minus the legal or relationship issues.

In January of 2002, my pastor did a sermon on "It's the New Year--New You. What needs to be new in you?" Right away, I heard a voice in my head say, "You should move to Alaska." I thought was the craziest thought to come out of my head in a long time. A couple months went by, and that thought was still nagging at me. Still crazy! At the time, I wasn't aware of God's direct influence on my life; we didn't talk all that much. What the heck would I do in Alaska? As I started to ponder that, it became clear that my career in communications and newspapers wasn't as likely to be a fit in Alaska. Well, what else could I do for money? I like staying in B&Bs, I thought...How would it be to run one? I started my research.

At the time, I was working full-time at a Minneapolis newspaper. Getting on the Internet at work, one of my first searches was for bed and breakfasts in Alaska. The very first one I looked at was for the Mat-Su B&B Association. When I opened that site, it alerted me that they had a workshop coming up in one month called How to Run a B&B in Alaska. God works in funny ways.

I flew to Alaska for this 2-day workshop, and my fate was sealed from there. The members of Alaska's Mat-Su B&B Association were so wonderfully warm, welcoming and sharing. I set my goals and decided to move to Alaska the following winter.

Plugging away, the next thing on the list was to come up with a B&B. At first, I thought I'd build one--something like a big, gorgeous log lodge, one with perhaps as many as 10 rooms and bathrooms. I bought 2 acres north of Wasilla, in the foothills of the Talkeenta Mountains, rugged, with great views. I had asked my realtor if she thought I needed to do a perc test. No, she didn't think so. Well, it turns out that piece of property was very wet--there was groundwater nine inches down. Ouch. I learned a lot about the state of the state when talking with legal council. It turns out that there are very few laws on the books to protect buyers. It's still a "Wild West" in many regards when it comes to real estate. I had been used to an environment where my realtor was my advocate in Minneapolis, where I had owned a home, and it doesn't work that way here. So, ok, I put that piece of property back up for sale since I couldn't get the sale undone.

Next, during the summer of 2002, I decided that I was probably a better candidate for buying an existing home, since I don't know that much about building one, especially long distance from Minneasota. With Realtor #2, I found a large home set on a couple acres with nice views. It was advertised on the flyer as "Great potential for B&B!" I asked the realtor if there was any zoning I needed to know about. She said there wasn't any zoning in the Valley--everyone could do what they wanted to. I had my cousin, Mike, come with me on one trip to Alaska to look it over structurally, and ended up buying that home in the fall. While in Minneapolis, I had been collecting furniture for the B&B and decided to freight it up to Alaska. I had nearly a full 40' container, enough for a 5 bedroom B&B. First, it went by rail to Tacoma, then by ship to Anchorage, then by truck to Palmer.

Just after New Year's of 2003, friends threw me a going-away bash, and I struck out for Alaska in my 1996 Ford Escort station wagon. I had driven the Alcan in this car for the first time in 1996, coming to Alaska on vacation with my grandmother. This time, it was me, my two Siberian huskies, Hans and Little Girl, and the china. It was a full load! January was a gorgeous time to drive the Alcan. It was below zero in parts of British Columbia and the Yukon. Those nights, I set the alarm in my hotel room to get out of bed a couple times a night to go out to the car and start it up, to run for a while.

We got to our new home and received the shipment of furniture and set about getting ready to be in the B&B business by spring-time. I also undertook quite a bit of remodeling, to make some rooms better suited for guests. By asking around, I found a contractor and his son who were very involved in one of the big churches here. This father and son team were very scrupulous, hard-working, and talented remodelers. As the visitor season approached, I made a post card inviting neighbors to come see the new B&B. I didn't hear much back from them. A couple of weeks later, I had a call from another woman in my B&B association. She said she didn't know me well, but from what she'd heard at the beauty shop, she thought there might be some trouble with my neighbors. I went next door to see if there was any truth to what I was hearing. They confirmed that they had said that it seemed like there were a lot of men coming and going from my house. That's just great--not exactly the way you want your reputation to start out in a small town. And they confirmed that they were seeking Borough action to have me cease and desist. According to them I wasn't allowed to run a B&B from my house due to zoning which specifically did not allow businesses, even home-based businesses.

Again, guidance by legal counsel suggested a direction that I would not have anticipated. Indeed, I had landed in one of the few homes with specific no-business spot-zoning applied to it. And again, it looked like there was little recourse with that real estate agent who had casually said I didn't need to be concerned about zoning. The lawyers I spoke with in Wasilla said that I could fight it, but it would be long and costly because I would be setting precedent in that area--no one else had gone up against the real estate lobby in these legal areas. Their advice was to sell the house and go on and have a good life. I put the house up for sale and called two previous employers in Minneapolis to see if I could get my job back there. Maybe I just wasn't cut out to be in Alaska. It's still kind of a gold-rush kind of place where some people win big, and others lose it all...

It was fall in 2003. I'd had one B&B summer and it went well. I was packing up to probably move back to the midwest. This had been a fun experiment but it looked like I was going to lose my shirt, trying to sell this large home. I saw the farmer in his field, next to my house. We had met earlier in the year when I moved in. I went out to say goodbye, that I'd be leaving. He suggested I come to see his brother's house, which was for sale. I said, no, really, real estate and I didn't seem to be a good match in Alaska. He talked me into it. It was set on 10 acres and was a much larger investment--there was no way a mortgage company would give me, a single woman with not even a year in business, a mortgage for that much.

Well, the rest is history. Everything came together far more perfectly than if I had tried to make it come out this way. God lined everything up, many complex pieces, and it all just fell in place. The other house sold for a small profit, and everything went smoothly for me to land in this new home, which has become Alaska Garden Gate B&B. It has been such a blessing to have found this spot. The views are breathtaking, every day is beautiful, the serenity of the acreage around me is soothing, and I love all the wildlife in this spot, surrounded by woods.

The rest is history! It's been an honor and very, very fun to welcome visitors from all over the world to my bed and breakfast. I've learned so much and made many friends, getting to host so many wonderful people.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You saw it here first

I would have been leading the annual two-day planning retreat for the Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau if I were at home and not with family in the Midwest today. I’m sorely bummed to be missing it, since I’m the new president of the MSCVB board, and we have exciting ideas on the drawing board for the future of the organization.

Here's my very first President's Column I wrote recently for the MSCVB members' newsletter:

Ever get phone calls from big-city folks who want to book with you and are in a hurry? They get off the phone before you can give them directions. Then, when they get here, they wander around lost because they thought they knew how it would be in Alaska, from MapQuest or whatever. Like them, we don’t always end up where we anticipated in our advance planning. I love maps. I’m crazy about them. An artist friend gave me a piece of calligraphy on a map that reminds me that in life, The Map Is Not The Territory.

I was a big-city person, before I moved here 5 years ago. Immediate gratification and the quick “get” were paramount. I’ve had to learn to slow it down here, and that’s been a good thing. That’s when we can actually get to know what’s under the surface. So many of our visitors zoom through on their way to Denali. They miss a lot of the wonderful people, naturally beautiful features, and off-the-road experiences of the Mat-Su Valley because they didn’t get past the surface, past what they could see at 65 miles per hour. The past couple of years, many of us have had banner years in our businesses, but from the numbers we know that we are barely scratching the surface with the million-plus visitors who travel THROUGH the Mat-Su in the summer. We have yet to capture so much more of the potential market.

The MSCVB is plugging away at the job of getting the word out about the Mat-Su Valley. The other day, I reflected with Bonnie Quill about how the organization has matured and how many strong foundational pieces have been put in place, since first board members developed the vision of the MSCVB, since Bonnie became the Executive Director 7 years ago, since Tammy Bruce joined the staff over 5 years ago, and since I joined the board. We are on the verge of so many big, BIG pieces in this moment because of all the work that has been done to this point. Each year, we put more pieces in place to reach visitors and help them more fully know what this place is that they’re coming to, what the heck a Mat-Su is.

In the four years I’ve been a board member, it has strengthened my patience bone. From the beginning, I wanted more winter marketing and a more thorough and interactive website presence, and I wanted it now. As I’ve gotten to know the “territory,” there have been good reasons for why these things have not come more easily or quickly.

For example, we could do a slick brochure or website for winter tourism, but to this point there has not been a good means of distribution. Reaching those specific people interested in coming to Alaska in the winter through mass marketing and media in a cost-effective way has been challenging. That’s changing year to year. More visitors who have come in the summer are considering winter and requesting winter information. The number of people coming for the Iditarod is surging by leaps and bounds. ATIA is growing its reach to winter visitors, which opens distribution avenues for us through their leads. The new Denaina Convention center in Anchorage is expected to significantly add to shoulder and off-season tourism business starting one year from now.

MSCVB’s marketing and website committees are working in these trend areas to meet “visitor need” with “product”—finding the right avenues to get the word out to those travelers. It’s not fast, but it is deliberate and comprehensive of changes in markets, political climates, and technology. Step by step, we’re making tracks.

Another project MSCVB’s board has started to think about is one which stands to have a tremendous impact on tourism in the Mat-Su Valley. It’s one that I’m passionate about, but also about which I’m going to need to exercise patience and help to lay solid groundwork.

As you know, the visitor center which the MSCVB operates is now in the shadow of the hospital and in the hubbub of the Glenn-Parks interchange. It is much less visible, and visitors using the VIC are down 50%. I thought, why can’t we have a VIC at the most-used entrance into our Borough? Like a gateway center, welcoming them to come within our borders, like at state borders in the Lower 48? A year ago, the board started to explore this concept. We have an idea and there have been some good first steps.

Last summer, we had shared preliminary ideas with the Assembly during a work session, and it was received enthusiastically. Next, the board drew up a resolution in support of a Destination/Gateway Visitor Center for the Mat-Su Borough. It lays out potential locations, such as near the Knik River exit off the Glenn Highway, and names potential partners we might approach such as DNR, Fish & Game, and the Glenn Highway Scenic Byway. The notion is to create an experiential, multi-faceted center which is a pace-setter among visitor centers.

A good model is being developed in Fairbanks. The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center ( www.morristhompsoncenter.org ) broke ground this spring, and is the product of many organizations working together with local, private, state and federal funding. Early on, I joked that we could name ours the Sarah Palin Visitor Center if that would grease the wheels of funding. This long-term vision may not be realized by the end of her run as Governor, however. The Fairbanks center was over ten years in the making. Certainly, ours will not be completed by the time I finish my term as the MSCVB board president, but I’m excited to start the process.

We adjust our course as we go. Most recently, this new resolution was brought forward to MSCVB members at the annual meeting a few weeks ago. We asked members present to make an advisory vote on whether MSCVB should move forward with this goal. Good points were made, information were shared, and members asked a lot of questions. This was all very helpful as we start on the ground floor of this project. The motion to support this effort carried unanimously.

What we have mapped out is not necessarily the territory we’ll be in a couple of years from now. The vision could look totally different, the political climate might shift, and where the money comes from will always be a question. But we’re putting a tack on our “map” as the starting point. I hope that you will journey alongside the board and staff as we venture down this trail.

Monday, December 3, 2007

At the Airport

I’m flying back to where my dad lives because of a sudden death in the family.

Here’s something so Alaskan: I bumbled my way into the security line after trying to forget my boarding passes in the little print out kiosk and cursing my daft choice of luggage that I pulled from the bowels of my closet at 5:15 a.m. I was still sleepy and not really looking at who was around me. Then, scooting along through the roped lines opposite me was Senator Lyda Green, the president of the Alaska Senate. She’s represents Wasilla, and she knows me because she eats my food often when I cater events. She asked where I was going. I said a funeral, but mumbled and didn’t enunciate since I was only half-awake. She said Juneau? She was off to Ketchikan. I nodded and smiled. On the next passing when our lines intersected, I rubbed a few brain cells together and asked if she was going for meetings, for Senate business? She said yes, about the Ferry. “That’s so important to them, you know,” she said. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry schedules and routes do indeed constitute lifelines for residents of the panhandle. The ferry loses money each year and its budgets are always on the chopping block. This little encounter is how it is here—our elected officials stand in line like the rest of us, are our neighbors, and work on issues that have real-life consequences to constituents in small-town ways.

I got Eat Play Love at the airport bookstore to read on the plane. I must be the perfect target market of the airport bookstore. I don’t know how that could be—I’m not a frequent flyer. But I always see about 6 books I’ve been dying to read and don’t run into in my daily go-rounds in Alaska. I’d been wanting to read Eat Play Love—it was recommended by my guest Susan Brooks, a customer service specialist and motivational speaker from Phoenix, a few weeks ago. She said I’d love it, and indeed I do. I love how travel makes us contemplate what we have chosen as “home” and what other places offer which differs slightly or greatly. The author wrote from Rome about the choices she’d made in life, the choices her mother had made, and where they both had sacrificed. It made me wonder about what I sacrifice in my life. Nothing much came to mind.

The 5 ½ hours to Minneapolis went the fastest it has gone by today. I’ve been hustling so much on catering jobs that I was exhausted and apparently slept the first two hours of the flight, though I could swear I just had my eyes shut and heard every noise uttered the whole time.

I was glad to arrive in Minneapolis. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to hear the words “Cedar Rapids” announced over a loud speaker. On the plane, I read the Northwest Airlines magazine. I almost forgot, but then checked the staff box. When I worked in journalism in the Twin Cities, I used to always read who was on staff first, before any articles, to see who had changed jobs, gotten a promotion, etc. I’m glad I didn’t forget today. It showed me that the company I used to work for now publishes NWA’s magazine. I saw my former boss’ name, the one who hired me for $14,500 after the first newspaper I worked for had gone under. And the name of the gal who I had replaced when she decided to stay home with a new baby—that was my big break into the world of art directing-- and several others I worked with and new well. That was nice.

One of the art directors is no other than my old pal, Geoff. He was the one who gave me the idea to go to Alaska in the first place. One summer in their youth, he and a couple high school friends drove a Chevette from Virginia, where they’re from, to Alaska along the Alcan. They recorded tidbits of their trip on cassette tape, punctuated by belching contests. In 1996, I took 3 weeks off my job as an art director to drive to Alaska. He and our friend Terri (now Mpls.St.Paul’s Art Director) walked me to the parking garage and wished me bon voyage, since I was headed for Winnipeg right from work. Somehow he slipped a mixed cassette tape into my car without me noticing until later. It was a “best of” compilation from his trip, kind of like a podcast before its day, and I got to hear 90 minutes about the adventures they found along the way.

Coming through the airport was nice moment of realizing how things have changed. Not only have my old friends done well at my previous company, but several other indicators pointed to how many of us have “arrived” or at least matured. I was pleasant surprised to see a French Meadow bakery along a concourse. That used to be the funky place my friends worked in a run-down but gonna-be-hip-one-day neighborhood while they worked at getting their writing or baking careers off the ground. It all feels so familiar here that I can’t believe how little I’m in touch with the goings-on here, but it points out that Alaska is So Far Away. My life there is so distant from these hip shops with their ultra-cool style, trendy colors, and (new to me) menu choices and products. Before leaving home, I jotted a quick e-mail to the gal coordinating our B&B Association’s Cookie Contest this weekend, which I’ll be missing. I won’t be able to be a judge, now that I’m on my way to this funeral, and I copied the Palmer Chamber director on that note to say I had wanted to volunteer the rest of the day for our annual Colony Christmas festival in little downtown Palmer, but I wouldn’t be able to. Coming down the driveway this morning at 5:45 a.m., I had to stop the car and move a fallen, rotted birch tree that was too big to just drive over. We’d had a pretty good windstorm last night. These are the things of my every day in my farm community of Palmer.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Feeding an Army

While I was preparing food for The Children’s Place board, which was having a day long planning retreat today, they asked what I was doing—what was that sound? It was my electric knife, carving turkeys. They asked why I was carving 8 turkeys, and I told them about tomorrow’s big dinner for the National Guard. Marion Romano, who does Economic Development for the Mat-Su Borough, said, “You’re making enough to feed and army!” And indeed I was! We had a good laugh about that.