Northern Star

by Rosalyn Graham

The North Hero House is a jewel in the crown of the Lake Champlain Islands

Walt Blasberg has been coming to the Lake Champlain Islands most of his life. In January 1997 the investment manager bought the North Hero House, in foreclosure. He launched a daunting restoration project. The result is an elegant, 26-room inn with private baths and balconies, some of the islands' best views, and an outstanding restaurant.

Anybody who thinks the way to learn to swim is to watch a lot of people swim-ming and then jump into the deep end will understand Walt Blasberg's approach to innkeeping. He had traveled a lot, stayed in fine hotels and eaten in excellent restaurants, so he bought himself an inn.

Not that he set out to become an innkeeper. Blasberg was and is in the investment management business, traveling the world advising people on managing their money, but he admits that his job left him enough time to dream about other projects he might tackle and Lake Champlain and the islands were part of many of those dreams.

The North Hero House overlooks Lake Champlain with breathtaking views.

Blasberg has been coming to Lake Champlain most of his life. He came with his family from New Jersey for summer visits to relatives as a little boy. He recalls visiting "the ice cream factory" at the University of Vermont and knowing that UVM was where he wanted to go to school. In the early '60s his parents bought property on Butler Island and built a house there, and in the early '90s, Blasberg and his then-wife and children built a house there, too.

Trips to North Hero by boat for provisions and gas, and visits to the Friday night lobster buffet at the inn were frequent happenings for the family, so Blasberg was familiar with the history of the North Hero House, so named in 1969 when a couple from New Jersey bought the historic building first opened as an inn in 1881 by the Dodd family. They renovated it beautifully, Blasberg says, and ran it until 1985, when they sold it to another New Jersey couple.

One evening in 1996, Blasberg's friends Bob and Beverly Camp, owners of Hero's Welcome General Store, came over to Butler Island with the news that the inn was for sale. "They tried to convince me I should buy it and fix it up," he says, explaining that the most recent owners had found themselves over-extended financially, having bought the property at the peak of the real estate market, and were eager to sell. "They convinced me I should look at the place, and I got it in my head that I wanted to bring it back," he says. His first offer was refused, but by late in 1996, the bank had foreclosed and was looking for a buyer. By Jan. 24, 1997, Blasberg owned the property.

John Martinez, Walt Blasberg's partner, was seeking relief from his 160 days of travel a year when he was offered the job of innkeeper in 1999. He's pictured with Oscar, a gift from Blasberg.

He hired Vermont architect and Grand Isle resident Bill Truex of Truex Cullins & Partners to advise on the renovation and rehabilitation of the century-old inn.

"The building hadn't been touched in 30 or 40 years," says Truex. "Walt brought the building from the feeling of the '50s to the '90s, and brought it up to the most modern standards for innkeeping. He did a really good job."

Builder Roland Decarreau of Grand Isle was hired to tackle the daunting project. First was calling in an auctioneer from Alburg to take away almost all the old furniture, and then gutting the building. DeCarreau put in central heating, new wiring, new plumbing, a bath for each guest room, new doors and windows.

"I don't think anybody else could have done the job," says Blasberg of Decarreau. "He was fast, smart, and had a lot of experience with old buildings."

The team worked closely with the Department of Labor and Industry, and found the state very helpful in inter- preting the regu-lations, sensitive to the fact that it was an old building and giving advice that retained the charm and saved money by waiving the enclosing of the staircase and recommending a sprinkler system for the third-floor rooms. "Putting in that sprinkler system reduced my insurance premiums and gave me four more rooms to rent," Blasberg says.

By the time the 1997 tourist season arrived, the North Hero House was ready for guests, with historic Island names for every room, a beautiful decorating scheme by Beverly Camp that gave every room its own character, and a smorgasbord of Vermont and Lake Champlain activities to attract the vacationing public. The buzz about the renovated inn and some marketing expertise from Blasberg's friend Jamie Leopold at Able Advertising soon had the phones ringing and people lining up again for the Friday night lobster buffet on the waterfront.

For Blasberg, though, the learning curve was just beginning. "When I bought the place, I had a great business model based on my experience owning lots of rental properties. I figured out occupancy rates, what it would cost to operate, how much I would make, no problem." He laughs as he remembers the pitfalls of the first few years most related to finding the right manager. Blasberg was a non-resident owner who traveled a lot in his work. While he has spent every weekend in North Hero since buying the inn, he needed a reliable, knowledgeable, trustworthy leader for his staff. After almost three years of disillusioning experiences, he found his innkeeper close to home.

John Martinez, Blasberg's partner, was in the midst of a successful career in international banking, and a frequent visitor to the inn. In the fall of 1999, he was spending two weeks there as he finalized plans to move to a new job as director of sales for Toronto Dominion Bank in Canada, the United States and Mexico one that offered relief from his 160 days of travel each year. His realization that he was "sick and tired of traveling" and ready for a change meshed perfectly with Blasberg's need for someone he knew and trusted to run the inn.

"I had told him buying the inn was a bad idea," says Martinez. "Then after he bought it, I thought, OK, now I have to support it; I'm going to help him out."

"Once John came in, things stabilized," says Blasberg.

Blasberg and Martinez have bought and renovated a house at the corner of Station Road, which is Martinez's primary dwelling and Blasberg's weekend abode. They discuss the inn and its operations by phone every day, sometimes three to five times a day, says Martinez.

One key to the inn's popularity is the restaurant open to the public for dinner whenever the inn is open and Chef Matthew DeCiantis, whom Blasberg describes as "the best chef we've ever had."

"We usually got our chefs from Johnson & Wales, CIA [Culinary Institute of America] or NECI two or three at a time," says Martinez. "He got hired as a line cook for $10 an hour." Although he has no culinary degree, DeCiantis has what Martinez calls "it" a passion for cooking, a great palate, a commitment to excellent quality food and the nerves and organizational skills needed to feed the large crowds that come to enjoy the nouvelle American cuisine with a Vermont flavor.

Martinez and DeCiantis work with local food producers such as Allenholm Farms, and plant their own garden to provide the highest quality Vermont products on the tables.

Phyllis Etheridge was bored after her retirement from IBM, so she took the job of housekeeper at the North Hero House. Rumor has it that Room 301, named after Jedediah P. Ladd, the town's first inn- and tavern-keeper, is haunted.

Quality products from outside the state include Black Angus beef and Lake Superior walleye, which Blasberg describes as the best freshwater fish there is. The Friday lobster buffet continues to be a big draw.

Oscar, Martinez's chocolate Lab a gift from Blasberg is never far from the dining room when meals are served, but he's well trained to stay out until after dinner. The obviously named Oscar's Pub, just outside the dining room, provides a comfortable gathering place for patrons.

Another key to a smooth operation, according to Blasberg, is Lois Janks. Blasberg's secretary in New York for 25 years, Janks took early retirement, found herself bored and miserable and came to North Hero House to run the front desk. "With the two crucial positions, manager and front desk, filled by people I know and trust, and a great chef, we think we've found the formula," Blasberg says, admitting that the hospitality industry is a challenging one.

"There are a thousand places you can touch people and a million opportunities to screw up," he observes.

Last year for the first time since 1997, North Hero House closed for the winter months, a decision Martinez says he regrets.

While the projected savings in fuel and electricity were exactly as he and Blasberg had expected, the number of calls for Thanksgiving reservations made them rethink the plan for 2005. They will be open from mid-April until after the Christmas party season.

"I like the idea of keeping my employees employed so they can do their Christmas shopping," says Martinez, who's looking forward to the new season. Planned are corporate meetings for the likes of Cirque de Soleil, Bombardier and IBM; fun events such as the Murder Mystery weekend, which seeds clues throughout the town; and weddings, which Martinez admits are the most fun part for him.

According to Camp, Blasberg has made a real difference in the town with his commitment to renovating the inn so thoroughly and his talent at marketing.

"He's worked hard to bring people in who are new to the area, but he is also very conscious of how the townspeople are reacting. With Shore Acres, Hero's Welcome and North Hero House, we've seen a real revival for the town and a good feeling about it."

Marian Fritz of South Hero, who provides financial services for small businesses, has known Blasberg since she set up the inn's bookkeeping system when he opened. She describes the inn as "the crown jewel of North Hero," not only a big draw for people from far away, but also a gathering place for islanders.

For Blasberg, his eight years as an inn owner have been "a wonderful journey with a lot of great things and a lot of pain. I'm looking forward to retiring and being involved on a day-to-day basis. It's addicting to have people come to your place, to talk to them and have a good time, and it's clearly not something you can do as a hobby."

Originally published in February 2005 Business People-Vermont