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Behind the B&Bs

Most Ashland residents drive past the Victorian mansions and other houses with B&B signs hanging outside and think nothing of the activity inside. But the innkeepers who run the 60 or so bed-and-breakfast accommodations here are quietly contributing to the city.

Consider this: The city of Ashland has long bragged that it has one of the highest number of B&Bs per capita in the U.S., about one for every 333 residents. B&Bs bring in about $5.25 million in lodging revenue a year, according to city officials, and contribute to the $1.9 million collected in room taxes.

People checking into B&Bs stay longer and differ in other ways from those who spend the night in a hotel or motel as they pass through the region, says Katharine Flanagan of the Ashland Chamber's Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Studies show that B&B visitors are very loyal to the place they lay their head, with many making reservations for the future as they check out. They are highly educated, have enviable expendable incomes and they patronize theaters, restaurants, stores and galleries. "Proximity to these amenities is important to them," says Flanagan.

None of this is news to David Runkel, who owns Anne Hathaway's B&B and Garden Suites on East Main Street. It was built in 1908 as a boarding house. He and his wife, Deedie, added two cottages across the street and built a third cottage three years ago. At 16 rooms, it is one of the largest B&Bs in town.

"B&Bs are part of the Ashland experience," he says, adding that people willing to pay a premium — $175 a night for one of his rooms — seek a homey feeling and want to talk about their travels with others.

"They form relationships here," he says.

Some even move here for good. "Unfortunately," jokes Vicki Capp, lamenting the loss of repeat customers. She has owned the Iris Inn Bed & Breakfast on Manzanita Street for 30 years.

She says that few residents understand the work innkeepers do to generate income in stores, restaurants and theaters. "One of the things a B&B does better than anyone is we get visitors out and about," she says. "We help to perpetuate the economy."

In weak economic years and when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is drawing more locals to its box office than out-of-towners, B&Bs feel the pain. Visiting theatergoers on a budget continue to buy tickets but stay in less expensive accommodations, says Lisa Beach, who owns A Midsummer's Dream Bed & Breakfast Bed and Breakfast Inn, which was built in 1901 as the Baldwin House on Beach Street.

Iris Inn's Capp says this year has been OK, but not as good as the past because people are still watching their expenses. There is also more competition, with new hotel chains in Medford and more alternatives in Ashland, including homeowners renting their own houses.

When she started, there were only 12 active B&Bs. Most of those inns that have not been converted to private homes have changed ownership several times.

Innkeeping is demanding, say those who do it. There are long days during the season and three off-season months with no income. Nationally, innkeepers stay in the business about seven years.

In Ashland, however, they stay longer, until circumstances change or "there seem to be better opportunities and they want to sell," says Capp. "Some couples think they will do this in retirement and it turns out to be one person's dream and another person's nightmare."

She says there is always a B&B for sale and as the season wears on, more owners think about selling. When Realtors call Ashland innkeepers saying they have a buyer for their property, she says the innkeepers always say, "Call back in October."

Cascade Sotheby's International Realty agent Scott Ralston has two properties with B&B provenance for sale. Clients Chuck and Laurel Biegert have owned the Mt. Ashland Inn minutes from the ski resort since 1995. They closed in February and put the 40-acre property up for sale for $995,000 to spend more time with their 11-year-old son, Caelan.

Laurel Biegert says that repeat customers were upset when they closed. "It's really a wonderful compliment," says Biegert, who says she will miss decorating, playing hostess and collaborating with other innkeepers. "It's not just a bed and breakfast, it's the heart and soul of the people who run the B&Bs. We are really going to miss these people."

She thinks a family may buy the six-bedroom B&B and use it as a second home. Or it could be sold to a person who puts on conferences, retreats or reunions, or an organization, church, synagogue. Or another innkeeper.

"Whoever buys it, the atmosphere and location is healing, peaceful," she says.

Realtor Ralston is also trying to sell a 1910 craftsman house on B Street that was once the Wolfe Manor Inn B&B. It just underwent a renovation to become a single-family residence priced at $1.5 million.

"A lot of the city's stately historic houses were inns," says Ralston, adding that many have been preserved and restored by B&B owners.

The Oak Hill B&B was built on orchard property in 1910 as a family home. Northeast on Siskiyou Boulevard is the Shrew's House, which is a restored 1914 Craftsman Cottage.

The McCall House Bed and Breakfast on Oak Street was originally built as a private house in 1883 for a gold prospector who later became the mayor and founded the Ashland Woolen Mill and the Bank of Ashland. It opened as a B&B in 1981 and was completely restored in 2002 by Nola O'Hara.

The brick Peerless Hotel was an old boarding house used by Southern Pacific railroad workers. It was vacant for the 10 years before owner Crissy Barnett restored it in 1994 and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, says manager Michael Biggs.

In 2002, Ashland Mountain House B&B owners John and Kathy Loram bought a neglected 1852 inn and tavern located where the California-Oregon Trail (now Old Highway 99) joined the Applegate Trail (now Highway 66). They spent almost three years restoring wrap-around porches, original wide-plank floors and tall windows with hand-blown glass, also earning it a listing on the National Historic Register.

"One of the best things about our B&B project has been the opportunity to save and live in this amazing place," says Kathy Loram. "It's an honor to feel that we've given this historic property a new lease on life and to offer our guests the chance to experience this beautiful setting and its connection with Oregon's past."

The Chanticleer Inn B&B, a 1920 home on Gresham Street, is the oldest continuing B&B in Ashland, established in 1981. Owner Ellen Campbell says the number of B&Bs has declined in Ashland because of the jump in real estate costs.

As the festival season edges to a close, so begins the sleepy time for Ashland's B&Bs. Some shut down for a month or so, while others stay open but are never as busy as they are during the summer and fall.

Throughout the lull time, innkeepers re-paint, deep-clean carpets and do other work necessary to prepare not only for next year's visitors but the spring inspection by their peers, members of the Ashland B&B Network.

The group formed 22 years ago as a collective in which innkeepers take turns answering the 800-944-0329 reservation line, help out when there is an illness and agree to cleanliness and hospitality standards. The paper brochure of the past is now a website (www.abbnet.com), and there are workshops members attend, such as a recent one offered by Noble Coffee called "Coffee 101."

Ashland is a highly competitive town, say Albion Inn owners Cyd and Gary Ropp, who offer their guests organic breakfasts, a 24-hour tea bar, freshly baked treats and sherry. Their Union Street property was first a miner's claim shack in the 1800s, then a 1902 farmhouse before it was converted into a B&B in the 1990s.

"Perhaps the profit margin isn't as high as people expect it might be, but the rewards are great nonetheless," says Cyd Ropp. "We have stimulating conversations with guests that often extend hours after breakfast."

Innkeepers need to be endlessly creative and imaginative "to give guests the best experience possible," says Dan Burian of Country Willows Inn, which was built in 1896 and turned into a B&B with cottages and gardens in 1985 on Clay Street. "With so many choices for lodging in the area, it takes much more than just a good scone recipe to set yourself apart."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com