Current employees retained at iconic Methow Valley inn
When they announced their purchase of Sun Mountain Lodge this week, Seattle-based GEM Real Estate Partners celebrated the uniqueness of the lodge and the experience people have there.
GEM founding partners Erich Guenther and Collin Madden said they’re excited to own the property. With 360-degree views from its hilltop location, Sun Mountain is an exceptional place, with a sense of elegance and tranquility inside and out, Madden told the Methow Valley News. “It’s totally irreplaceable — there’s nothing like it anywhere,” he said.
“We’re attracted to the experience,” Guenther said.
Guenther and Madden are also excited about being part of the valley as they gear up for the busy summer season. Since the sale closed just last week, they said they’re still getting their bearings. Then, after a moment of reflection, they said it might be more accurate to say they’re realizing just how much they don’t know.
But the partners bring indispensable experience in the realms of luxury hospitality and real estate. Guenther, who grew up in a family that owned, developed and managed hotels, has a lifetime of involvement in the hospitality industry. In fact, his father, who was a German diplomat, knew the Haubs, the brothers from Germany who owned Sun Mountain for the past 35 years.
Guenther first encountered Sun Mountain when he explored on horseback during family vacations. He later obtained a professional perspective from attending business retreats at the lodge.
GEM started a dialog with the Haubs about the possibility of purchasing the property about a year ago, Guenther said. The former owners wanted to keep the negotiations very quiet and it was an off-market transaction.
Not surprisingly, discussions were put on hold during last summer’s Cedar Creek Fire, which came within 1/4 mile of the lodge. While the fire burned parts of the trail system, the lodge and grounds were untouched.
The lodge was evacuated in July and remained closed for three months. It received a complete cleaning to remediate smoke damage and all furnishings were replaced before reopening in October. “We were scared there might not be a lodge, and are elated it survived,” Madden said.
GEM owns office buildings, apartment buildings and hotels in and around Seattle, but this is the company’s first property outside that area. With the enormous international appeal of the Pacific Northwest, the new owners see an exceptional opportunity to market a destination that combines the urban experience of Seattle with the sumptuous rural character of Sun Mountain, they said. The fact that the valley is a prime vacation destination for people in the Seattle area was also an important factor, they said.
Sun Mountain will be a great complement to their other hotels, the Kimpton Palladian Hotel in downtown Seattle and the boutique South Lake Union hotel that they’re currently developing, the new owners said.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled about acquiring Sun Mountain Lodge and adding another exceptional asset to our luxury hospitality portfolio,” Guenther said in GEM’s announcement of the acquisition.
Sun Mountain is an unusual property, with a great reputation and special location, they said. Compared with GEM’s typical acquisitions — empty office buildings, which they upgrade and transform — acquiring Sun Mountain is part of a plan to round out their hotel offerings. Plus, it’s a lot more fun than working on an office building, Madden said.
While Guenther was introduced to Sun Mountain at an early age, Madden came to the Methow for the first time last year. He was raised in Seattle in a family in the milk and ice cream business. While the work often took them around the state, it somehow never included the Methow.
As a result, Madden has an irrepressible sense of awe for the beauty of the Methow and the North Cascades. He’s already thrown himself into local activities. He grew up downhill skiing at Stevens Pass and tried the Methow’s Nordic trails last winter. Once he shed the heavy parka and snow pants and familiarized himself with the equipment, he was hooked. Now he has his sights on heli-skiing.
After the sale was final, all the lodge’s employees were released by the former owners and promptly rehired by GEM. One of Guenther’s and Madden’s first plans is to meet every one of the lodge’s almost 100 year-round employees. They’ve already met about one-third of them, and have been impressed with everyone’s authenticity and dedication, they said.
“It’s refreshing. They love the lodge and they love their jobs,” Madden said. Some have been there more than three decades. “That speaks volumes about the place,” Guenther said.
At present, they don’t have any concrete plans for the resort, although they’re looking to enhance the spa experience, Guenther said. “We’re very new to this — we’re still getting our bearings. We’re elated to just own the property,” he said.
Particularly since they’re taking over at the busiest time of year, with a full calendar of guests, weddings and special events, the new owners are focused on the summer season and on hiring people who will create a special experience for everyone at the lodge. After that, they’ll solicit feedback from employees, guests and people in the valley and reassess before planning any changes, they said.
Both Guenther and Madden have young families, and they look forward to experiencing the charms of Sun Mountain and the valley with them, from horseback riding to ice fishing. Over the past year, some of their most special experiences have been cowboy dining. “Getting on a horse and having dinner — that’s something you don’t usually experience,” Guenther said.
“We also like the sunshine — it’s a good motivator,” he said.
Jack Barron opened Sun Mountain Lodge in 1968, which he conceived as a rustic mountain-top resort that would blend in with its surroundings.
The Haub brothers bought the lodge in 1987. They embarked on an expansion and renovation that maintained Barron’s original vision. The renovations incorporated natural materials and hefty Douglas fir beams to complement the massive local boulders and timbers Barron had used. In 2002, the Haubs remodeled the lodge again, commissioning local artisans to create furnishings and accessories.
According to records of the Okanogan County assessor, the lodge, Patterson Lake cabins and 69.5 acres sold for $12.5 million. GEM Real Estate Partners is a Seattle-based firm that focuses on long-term investment in Northwest real estate.