The Artful Lodger

Creating a Stowe legacy

by Will Lindner

gm_inn_0211_bp5275_110Patti Clark has been innkeeper at The Green Mountain Inn in Stowe since she was hired in 1989 by Marvin Gameroff, the Canadian entrepreneur who, from the 1970s, worked for the village’s preservation. The inn is now owned by the Gameroff Trust.

The Village of Stowe is a thriving community of some 4,500 residents. A commercial district bordering its Main Street mixes fashionable boutiques with more conventional businesses, the granite-and-brick municipal building, a dignified if unimposing ski museum, and the white-spired Stowe Community Church.

A lattice of small roads to the east of the village center embraces residences, offices, shops, a library, and a post office in modest, well-kept buildings.

Surrounded by mountains — including the famous one, Mount Mansfield, a few miles to the northwest — Stowe has managed to remain “quaint” and “picturesque” in the New England tradition.

That’s a claim not all communities dependent on skiing and tourism can make, for it’s not uncommon for traditional village centers to lose the implicit tug-of-war that ensues when a destination resort encamps upon a nearby mountain and creates a world unto itself. Weakened and neglected, a village can wither.

There were many reasons this did not happen to Stowe, but certainly one of them was Marvin Gameroff, a Canadian businessman who took a liking to Stowe in the 1970s and purposely worked for its preservation through investments that would be both profitable for him and supportive of the village community.

One of these, in 1982, was purchasing the Green Mountain Inn, a then–somewhat tattered facility with about 90 acres of land, on Main Street. Built as a home in 1833, it had been an inn for a century when Gameroff bought it. He also bought what’s now known as the Whiskers Building Farmhouse and owned a home in Stowe with about 150 acres of land.

And although he might not have seen it this way at the time, another investment he made was hiring Patti Clark as his innkeeper in 1989.

Now 54, Clark was working in hospitality for the Mount Mansfield Co. — her first job after earning her degree in business. Migrating down from the mountain, she learned to appreciate Gameroff’s dedication to the village and to see where opportunity lay within that vision.

“Marvin Gameroff was very interested in keeping the village true to itself,” says Clark. “He thought that there would be more sprawl up the Mountain Road and he didn’t want to lose that sense of the village that such development could bring. He was very focused on keeping the village a village.”

To that end, and as a business investment, Gameroff, in the course of major renovations to the inn, had made room for a fully appointed health club with racquetball, Nautilus machines, and an array of other equipment. Membership was open to the public.

When Clark came on board and began re-imagining the inn, she advocated the downsizing of the health club, limiting it to guests, and making use of some of its space. She proposed to construct eight new, luxury rooms and two one-bedroom apartments, all of them with fireplaces and Jacuzzis, fineries previously unknown to the inn.

Named the Clubhouse, this was the company’s first step toward developing a broader and larger clientele for the inn.

It was followed in 1997 by an even more ambitious project: a whole new building at the far end of the rear parking lot. The Mill House added king-size canopy beds and put the Jacuzzis near the fireplaces, for an intimate, romantic experience.

“The owners were a little nervous about that project,” Clark recalls. “They were asking, was it a good business decision to go into the luxury end of the market right here in the village. And it was a home run — very well-received — and we added to our clientele. Our occupancy really shot up in that room type.”

In those days, Clark explains, the well-known Topnotch Inn on the Mountain Road pretty much had a corner on the local luxury market. As now, the trend was to situate higher-end facilities in what are virtually planned communities at the foot of the ski slopes. The Green Mountain Inn’s development ventures ran counter to conventional wisdom.

But they did not run counter to Gameroff’s village boosterism, even if the company (which is now held by his heirs, and is called Ampersand Properties LLC) harbored doubts about the new direction.

“We felt that with our location in the village and the amenities we offer, we could compete in that market,” Clark says. “It wasn’t long before the company realized it was the right direction.”

Ken Biedermann now manages Ampersand Properties in its many ventures, and in that role has been a longtime colleague of Clark’s and has observed her work at the inn.

Clark is still lean and athletic — she grew up in St. Johnsbury and was a ski racer at Burke Mountain during high school — and she’s a pleasant “people person,” the kind of personality that fits well in the hospitality business. But what impresses Biedermann is how Clark combines those traits with an analytical and creative business mind.

“She’s got the hands-on ability, the day-to-day operational stuff that she does very well,” says Bierdermann. “But she’s also got the ability to step back, to think about where the industry is going, where Stowe is going, and then derive a business plan that takes the company in that direction.”

Bierdermann’s own past as a young, avid skier (“I grew up in Stowe, in a ski lodge, basically”) sheds some light on Clark’s and Ampersand’s game plan.

“In those days,” he says, “people would ski 10 to 15 runs, then go out to the clubs and party, then go back to their hotels to sleep. They didn’t require much of their accommodations.

“But now, with high-speed lifts, you can ski 20 runs in the morning, and for a lot of people that’s enough. So they’re looking for a different experience in their lodgings. Patti started the Green Mountain Inn down that road years ago. Unfortunately, at least a dozen, smaller hospitality businesses couldn’t see or make those changes, and they’re kind of gone now.”

Clark didn’t stop with the Mill House. Its success was so striking that in 2000 the company pursued an even larger venture — the imposing Mansfield House, with eight luxury rooms (defined as the canopy-bed-and-fireside-Jacuzzi design) and 12 luxury suites, which include separate living rooms. There are also two “grand rooms” in the Mansfield House, which stands behind the Mill House, farther back still from Main Street.

The company also constructed more town houses, so that when all of its projects are put together, the Green Mountain Inn is now a multi-dimensional property with a pretty big footprint, even though it still appears modest — intentionally so — from the Main Street entrance.

It has grown from 54 rooms when Clark joined the company in 1989, to 108 varied guest facilities, as well as two restaurants, the exercise room, and an outdoor heated pool.

Crucial to the inn’s character, longevity, and success, however, is the homey atmosphere it has preserved. The front door opens on the century-old lobby, renovated yet still humble; the hallways and staircases in the original building are labyrinthine and narrow; the rooms, even those with Jacuzzis and gas fireplaces, are comfortably sized and not ostentatious, each bed covered with a quilt made by local artisan Karen Bose.

Historic photographs line the hallways, along with dozens of landscapes and village-scapes by deceased Stowe artist Walton Blodgett. “The inn owns over 50 of the original Blodgett paintings,” says Clark.

Complimentary tea and cookies are served each afternoon in a den off the lobby, a room where, in the morning, guests show up in their slippers, with laptops, to start the day off easy.

“What drew me to the inn was the personality of the facility,” says Clark. “It has a wonderful history, which the owners have brought to the forefront. The staff goes out of their way to make guests feel welcome and at home. Certainly the buildings create the unique feeling of this inn, but also the staff has made this business so special.”

The inn employs 70 to 100 people, depending on the season, even though “downtime” for the Green Mountain Inn is confined to a short period between winter and summer, both of which are busy. Fall, of course, is foliage time.

Somehow the woman who hosts more than 100 guest rooms and suites has time to maintain a home of her own. Clark lives in Stowe with her husband, Roy, a local Realtor who also manages the Willoughvale Inn, another Ampersand property, at Lake Willoughby. They have two daughters: Brittany, a 22-year-old senior at Johnson State College, and Katie, who is 20 and attends college in London. Patti chairs the marketing committee of the Stowe Area Association.

She doesn’t ski as much as she used to, but she hikes Stowe’s many trails and paths, and her latest passion is marathon running. She and several staff members are training for this spring’s KeyBank Vermont City Marathon, and in so doing are developing a new camaraderie that relieves some of the pressures of their jobs.

More than 21 years into her stewardship of one of the most prominent businesses in one of Vermont’s signature towns, one could say that her career as a Vermont innkeeper has also been a marathon of sorts. And in this, her colleagues and friends in the Stowe business community seem to agree that Patti Clark is a winner. •