By KATHLEEN SWANSON, Islander Contributor.
It’s checkout time in North Hero.
Not for the guests, but for several key owners.
Four iconic businesses - three hotels, two with popular restaurants, and the town’s general store - are all up for sale, all at the same time, awaiting a new generation to take over.
Their current proprietors say it’s a coincidence they all want to sell at the same time, and they do so with some reluctance, but all say it’s time to retire and for someone else to take the reins.
They will, however, have all left their mark and through care and significant improvements, will leave behind properties greatly improved over what they took over.
On the market are Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant, Hero’s Welcome, North Hero House Inn & Restaurant and Holiday Harbor Lodge.
This is not bad news, but time to bring new energy into the Champlain Islands while business is not only thriving, but growing, they say.
The picturesque village of North Hero is unique because its lies on the shore of Lake Champlain’s City Bay – the only village center in the islands directly on the lake.
It has one of the oldest functioning court houses in the United States, as well as antique shops, the North Hero House Inn and Restaurant and Hero’s Welcome general store and post office, which serve as the heart of the village.
“The Champlain Islands is well positioned for hospitality growth in the coming years,” said Sherri Potvin, Executive Director of the Lake Champlain Islands Economic Development Corporation.
Grand Isle County is within a day’s drive of 40 million people.
In most cases, the owners of the four properties said it was serendipity that they ended up in North Hero, and in every case the rehabilitations of the business properties became a labor of love.
It is bittersweet to sell, all the owners say, and they want to find the right buyer who will continue to nurture and grow their labor of love.
“All of these businesses contribute to the quality of life in North Hero and the entire county,” said Potvin. “These businesses provide jobs. We have a thriving village on the shores of Lake Champlain, thanks to these proprietors. Thanks to their hard work we are able to promote year-round activities and bring people to our community.”
-- Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant --
Mike & Susan Tranby were in their late 20s teaching school in Minnesota when a friend suggested they relocate to Vermont. They arrived with no job prospects, but saw a newspaper ad for a caretaker position at a South Hero estate on the east shore.
After working there for a couple of years they were recruited in 1984 by Doug Tudhope to run Shore Acres, which Doug, his wife, Billie and friends Jack and Shirley White bought in 1981 with hopes that it would stay an inn and restaurant and not be developed into housing lots.
The Tranbys had zero experience running a motel, let alone a restaurant. With an 18-month-old daughter in tow they said yes.
The rooms had stinky shag carpeting with beds, mostly twins, from the 1950s. The restaurant had orange vinyl table clothes. One of the items on the menu was hot dogs and beans.
“The previous manager was a gruff guy and he told us we were going to be so unhappy we took this job,” said Susan Tranby. “Later that day the Shore Acres sign near the road blew down.”
It was not an omen.
The Tudhopes and the Whites gave the Tranbys a $25,000 budget to make over the rooms. Mike pulled the shag carpeting out himself and over the next 35 years renovated each room, replacing twin beds with full, queens and kings.
“We’ve redone everything twice,” said Mike, 65, and who wears his signature bow tie behind the bar.
As the years went on Mike and Susan became equity partners in the business. They now own 50% of the business, while the Tudhopes retain 30% and the Whites 20%.
In the ensuing 35 years, a son was born and with the help of Susan’s mother and a string of Swedish nannies, thanks to Mike’s cousins in Sweden, the Tranby’s were able to hold body and soul together.
Both their children Majken, 36 and Paul, 33 worked at the inn and restaurant.
“Majken was six when she started to bus tables,” said Susan Tranby.
The restaurant has been under the capable hands of chef Dan Rainville, of Isle La Motte, for 27 years. Shore Acres serves breakfast and dinner, with a menu featuring gourmet entrees to homestyle pot roast and turkey dinners.
The Tranbys operate Shore Acres from Easter to Thanksgiving.
When they decided to put the property on the market in April Mike wrote 150 hand-written letters to loyal customers and long-time employees.
“It’s very personal. We’ve had multiple generations of families work for us and every year many of the same families return,” said Mike Tranby. “We’re not in a hurry. We’re not anxious to sell. We’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing, but we wanted to be organized and thoughtful.”
The property is listed at $2.9 million with Hearthside Group, a hospitality business broker based in Vermont and New Hampshire. The property located on the east shore of North Hero is 45 acres with 1,800 feet of lakeshore. There are 23 guest rooms, 19 with a lake view. There is capacity to build six more rooms.
There is a separate home located on the property that provides privacy and 2,150 square feet of living space to the owners.
The Town of North Hero has the property appraised for tax purposes at $1.66 million, which does not include the value of the business.
“This is a unique, wonderful property with a long history of bringing people to Lake Champlain,” said Wendy Beach, the Hearthside Group broker listing the property. “It is a fantastic offering. This is a turnkey sale. The business is solid with many returning customers.”
“The Tranbys have worked really hard and have created a very marketable business. It is truly amazing what they have accomplished,” Beach said.
-- Hero’s Welcome --
The iconic general store is one of the Champlain Islands destination locations since Bob and Beverley Camp bought the shuttered store in 1993.
The couple had planned on a sabbatical in the islands for only a year after Bob retired as an executive at Pier 1, a home goods retail chain and Beverley closed her business Westminster Lace. The couple, who have four children between them, were living in Seattle at the time.
“During the time here for the sabbatical my dad died and it made me think about my own mortality,” Bob said. “I was out rowing in a skull and I came home and said to Bev, ‘Let’s just stay here.”
Soon the couple bought a dilapidated home in North Hero, north of the village. Almost every window was broken, but the lakeside house had potential.
They were fully involved in renovating that house when they went to look at two business properties for sale in the village of North Hero.
One was the former Tudhope general store, which was originally built by John Tudhope in 1899 and run by the family continuously for 90 years.
The other was the North Hero House, also with a rich history, but had also fallen on hard times.
“First property I looked at was the North Hero House. The general store was empty and dark. The only light on was at the post office. With our retail experience we thought the general store was a better fit.”
Bob and Bev, who are now in their mid-seventies, bought the general store from the bank and renamed it Hero’s Welcome.
“We started this as a project and then 26 years rolled by and the business has thrived,” Bob Camp said.
On a September morning the store with its well-stocked shelves of everything from kitchen accoutrements, clothes, games, books, food, beer and wine, was bustling.
The Lake Store out back sells all manner of lake toys, including kayaks, floatables and athletic equipment. Basically, they sell everything. Hero’s Welcome is open year round and continues to be home to North Hero’s U.S. Post Office.
The Camp’s savvy marketing and branding has made Hero’s Welcome an institution in the Champlain Islands and beyond. Bob estimates that they have 150,000 visitors a year.
“In the summer we have all the business we can handle, really,” he said.
In the shoulder and winter months Hero’s Welcome uses its web business to sell items from the store and island branded merchandise that is shipped to every state in the U.S.
The property consists of the main store, the lake store, a garage that in the past has been a craft shop and now serves as a retail shop and the adjacent four-bedroom house that has been renovated.
The property has 50-feet of owned lake shore with a boat launch and another 50-feet of shared lake shore. There is also 160-feet of dockage and moorings.
This isn’t the first time The Camps have said they wanted to sell. In 2017 they quietly marketed the property with their long-time managers and business partners, Carlene and Paul Letourneau.
The Camps and Letourneau’s have the property listed with V/T Commercial, a Burlington-based commercial real estate and business brokerage firm.
John Beal, the listing agent, said the firm has worked with a number a Vermont country store sales and that there are very few stores that can rival Hero’s Welcome in terms of location, quality of the property and the all encompassing business model that includes retail, a bakery, deli, fuel sales, boat docking and a U.S. Post Office as a tenant.
“We’re excited to be involved with the project,” Beal said. “Country stores are a lifestyle business. We will market Hero’s Welcome nationally, especially in Boston and New York area. Typically you see folks looking at this kind of property who have made good money and are seeking a lifestyle change.”
The exact price will be set later this week on V/T Commercial’s website, but Bob says it will be in the “modest seven figures.” The town has the real estate appraised at $1.2 million.
Bob said he and Bev and the Letourneaus will be available to help the new owners transition.
-- North Hero House Inn & Restaurant --
The North Hero House has a rich and long history.
It was founded in 1891 by James H. Dodds, the descendant of a Scottish family that settled in North Hero in the early 1800’s and has been in continuous operation since then.
The Dodds family ran it until 1969, when it was sold to a New Jersey dentist. In 1985 it was briefly owned by another New Jersey couple, until Walter Blasberg, a long time summer resident of the Champlain Islands, bought the inn in 1997.
The inn was desperately in need of repair. There was Astroturf in the lobby and all the rooms needed to be upgraded. With the help of Bev Camp’s interior design skills, the entire inn was renovated and reopened in fall 1997.
Walt is conflicted about selling, not only because he’s put so much energy and investment into the inn, he feels like he has an extended family there.
“I’ve put a lot of work into this and want it to go into the right hands,” Walt said. “I’m not going to sell to just anyone. The new owner needs to have a strong commitment to the staff, our customers and the community. You have to understand that North Hero has been transformed over the last 25 years by private investment and I hope it continues.”
Walt, who is a 1970 University of Vermont graduate, worked in finance and investment brokerage before becoming an innkeeper. He’s looking for a buyer with the depth of financial and operational skills needed to run the operation.
He briefly had the inn on the market with a hospitality broker late last year, but canceled the listing in December. Walt now has the North Hero House listed with Pomerleau Real Estate’s business brokerage division.
“This property is absolutely charming,” said Stuart “Kim” Wichert, the broker listing the inn. “There is great access to the lake. It is a great venue for events and it’s a quick ride from Burlington or Montreal. Walt has a lot of Canadian clientele and we will market this in Canada.”
In its heyday in the early part of the last century steamships would deliver guests to the North Hero House from New York to escape the heat.
Although steamships are a thing of the past, the steamship pier continues as a destination for lunch and dinner, concerts and other events.
Today the Inn consists of 3 guest houses in addition to the Main Inn built in 1891, for a total of 26 rooms. There are two bars, event sites for weddings and family reunions, a sandy beach and marina.
The main inn dining room is open seven nights a week in the season, while the Steamship Pier Bar & Grill is open Wednesday-Sunday noon-8 p.m. through Labor Day and Friday –Sunday from noon-8 p.m. after that.
The town has the inn, lake front and adjacent buildings appraised at $1.3 million. Wichert said Pomerleau will list the property in the $2 million range.
-- Holiday Harbor Lodge --
Bruce and Joanne Batchelder have run Holiday Harbor near the bridge to Alburgh for 13 years.
The property is for sale by owner for $1.3 million, which includes 3 acres, 400 feet of lakeshore, 12 rental units (six with full kitchens and six with kitchenettes). The town of North Hero has the real estate property appraised at $774,700.
The Holiday Harbor is a favorite of fishing enthusiasts because the property is on a protected part of the lake but easy access to the broad lake and the inland sea.
“We’re a little hesitant (to sell). I’m turning 70 this year, which is the inspiration for the decision,” said Bruce Batchelder. “We’re not in a rush to get out. We love the work and the people we serve.”
Bruce was principal at the Alburgh Elementary School for many years and he and Joanne raised their three daughters there. Bruce and Joanne were recruited 20 years ago to help found a Catholic elementary school in Morrisville. Once the school was built, Bruce served as principal and Joanne as guidance counselor for 10 years.
“We were looking for something to do together and missed being on Lake Champlain,” Bruce said.
Holiday Harbor was for sale and both Bruce and Joanne shared a passion for fishing.
But the property needed work. The individual cottages were built in the 1960s as a roadside motel. The main house, one of the oldest homes in North Hero, built in 1850, was also in need of rehabilitation.
Bruce and Joanne have renovated every cabin and the entire house, where they live and have an office and tackle shop.
The Batchelders split Holiday Harbor’s season in two with open water from around April – October and ice fishing season from January – March. Last year they were open 30 weeks.
“We’ve put a lot of work into the property. We’ve been very successful,” said Bruce. “I would say 75 percent of our clientele are return customers.”
On a recent morning the parking lot was full of trucks and trailers and boats on the docks. Holiday Harbor functions essentially as a fishing lodge. Guests, mostly men and fishing buddies, stay in the tidy cabins Saturday to Saturday. The well-appointed cabins also have grills and picnic tables.
Bruce likes to remind people that a business like Holiday Harbor is for people who enjoy hospitality work. “You have to be a people person,” he said.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Living in the islands is spectacular. There is nothing like it.”
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