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.
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