An Inn made La Conner the place to stay
Back in the day-
January 26, 2022
Development of two properties in town helped transform La Conner from a sleepy waterfront village to the “Inn” place to be on Puget Sound.
One, now the La Conner Country Inn, was a low-lying, flood-prone area. Several wartime housing units constructed during the 1940s were moved there from Whidbey Island.
“They were not exactly built to last,” recalls Rick Thompson, whose father, the late Paul Thompson, bought the cabins and property at Second and Morris streets nearly a half-century ago.
“I don’t know much about the history of the buildings except that Gene Senff purchased them from the naval base after the war. Gene had rented them out for years. My dad continued that for two or three years prior to the Inn construction.”
Over the course of three decades, time and weather had taken their toll on structures intended to provide only temporary shelter.
“My most vivid memory,” Thompson said, “is that every winter the property flooded. As a result, the tenants constructed temporary piers, floats and walkways in order to get in and out of the cabins.”
At some point a cabin was spraypainted with the misspelled moniker “Town Getto.” The name stuck until the cabins were demolished and site preparation begun for the Country Inn.
Developing an inn on the property was not an overnight decision.
The idea evolved after Thompson’s return from Germany, where he had served in the Army, and began work at La Conner Realty & Investment, whose office was located in the historic downtown Pennington Building.
“Once the Town Square (at First and Morris streets) was completed in 1975, we moved the realty office there,” said Thompson. “In both locations we served as a kind of de facto tourist information center. Tourism was starting to pick up in La Conner and people had questions about the town and its history. A real estate office seemed to be a good place to inquire.
“I immediately realized,” he said, “that one of the most common questions people had was: “Where is the nearest place to stay overnight?’ At that time, the only place in town was the Nordic Inn (now the Planter Hotel – ed.), which was okay, but had no private baths. The other option was the Wagon Wheel Motel on the rez. It, too, was okay, but certainly not the ‘Ritz!’ So, we ended up sending people to either Anacortes or Mount Vernon.
“I finally told my dad that I was sick of sending people out of town to stay overnight,” Thompson said. “I told him that we should consider building a modern motel or hotel on the ‘Town Getto’ site. My dad agreed that we should explore the possibility.”
The Thompsons reached out to Glen Bartlett, who had designed the Town Square and asked him to consider how a new inn might be sited at the ‘Getto’ and fit in with the historical ambiance of La Conner.
“A few days later Glen came to the realty office with a sketch,” said Thompson. “It was very similar to what exists today. The three of us sat down and decided to form a partnership to design and construct the La Conner Country Inn.”
Construction started in mid-1976. The inn opened in February 1977.
Looking back, Thompson said the timing was ideal for developing the Country Inn.
“We saw a need,” he explained. “La Conner was coming out of its coma, which I attribute to the construction of the marina and Shelter Bay, the nostalgia craze for which virtually unchanged La Conner was perfect and the long-term art scene created by Guy Anderson, Clayton James and friends. I guess this is an example of: ‘Build it and they will come.’”
Even so, there were challenges, he noted.
“I would have to say that I would compare the success of the Country Inn to the ‘overnight sensation’ in show business who spent 20 miserable years prior paying the dues for success. Success was not overnight. We had some tough early years. But we kept at it and slowly our reputation along with the town’s allure created the success we currently enjoy.”
After some changes within the original partnership, bringing aboard Jim MacLean and Tom Whyte, the inn group repeated its successful formula by unveiling plans to build a second hotel on the North First Street waterfront.
“There were two failed proposals before us,” said Thompson. “But we realized that a hotel was probably going to be built there sometime.”
Prospects improved considerably in 1989 when Dunlap Towing was added as a partner after the La Conner firm contributed the shoreline property that would become home to the Channel Lodge, its defining Northwest exterior styling the creation of Liddell-Pederson Architects, also of La Conner.
The interiors were developed by Marcia Johnson & Associates of Seattle, with Heidi Epstein in the lead design role, Thompson said.
The Channel Lodge location would be ideal for guests seeking a shoreline retreat from the hubbub of urban life. But it also posed some hurdles during the permit process.
“A hotel is not considered a water-dependent use,” Thompson noted. “So, as such, it did not meet shoreline management requirements. However, by adding a pier and dock and committing to providing moorage for boats and sightseeing vessels, we overcame that obstacle.”
Thompson said there is hardly a better venue for overnight lodging, nestled as La Conner is on a saltwater channel with sweeping views of snow-capped peaks, evergreen forests and pastoral farmland.
“We’ve been blessed with a wonderful assortment of guests who appreciated our properties and our efforts to make their stay enjoyable,” he said. “I believe this is true because people who stay with us have come to La Conner specifically to experience the town. You do not ‘just happen to drive through’ La Conner. People who come here made a conscious decision to do so. They have a positive image of the town to begin with.”
And despite the COVID-19 pandemic and more predictable ups-and-downs of the business cycle, Thompson said La Conner’s lodging industry has been able to weather the storms sent its way.
“In the financial sense,” he said, “there have been challenges. But, overall, La Conner has proven to be recession-proof. Even in bad financial times, people still want to get away. So, a little gem like La Conner just an hour from Seattle can really fill the bill.
“The year 2021 is a case in point,” Thompson insisted. “La Conner’s merchant community – including the hotels – has had one of the best years in history. The Town’s sales tax revenues are proof of that. People chose to escape COVID-19 in La Conner.”
The fact they have had the opportunity to do so is truly one of the more Inn-credible chapters in La Conner lore.