Birch Bay hostel gets the proverbial axe

Published on Thu, Dec 19, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Birch Bay hostel gets the proverbial axe

By Meg Olson

Wayne Maschger has lost his home and his job, but he is more concerned that the community and the traveling public have lost a unique resource – the Birch Bay hostel. The hostel closed for the season in October, and will not reopen.

“There are going to be 300 people showing up here next year with nowhere to go. That’s about how many you’d expect that don’t call first,” said Maschger, manager of the hostel since 1999. “The community loses a low-budget place for young people and families to stay, and loses access to a large network of international and North American travelers.”

The youth hostel was one of 120 in the U.S. and thousands worldwide administered by Hosteling International (HI), also known in the U.S. as American Youth Hostels. It was also the last in Whatcom County, after the Bellingham hostel shut down in 2000. It has been in the old officers quarters at Bay Horizon Park since 1982 operating under a lease from Whatcom County parks.

The hostel did not pay rent on the 14-bedroom building, but paid for utilities, maintenance and leasehold taxes. “Since we don’t pay property tax we pay a leasehold tax when we rent a property,” parks operations manager Lynne Givler said. “They only paid about $45 a month.” The hostel had beds for 49 travelers, a communal kitchen and large common room and dining room. During the May to October operating season, the hostel provided a bed and do-it-yourself pancake breakfast for $14 a night.

According to Givler, the second of two ten-year leases was over at the end of this year and there was a mutual agreement between the parks department and HI regional administration not to renew it. “There was not a lot of use so our thought was there wasn’t a lot of benefit,” Givler said. That decision was based on usage numbers her department received from HI, Givler said. They showed overnights declined from 677 in 1999 to 522 in 2001.

Givler also said HI administration appeared lukewarm about operating a hostel in Birch Bay. “When we talked to HI it seemed their real desire was to have something in Bellingham and they only wanted to renew here on a year-to-year basis,” she said.

Leah La Civita, HI Pacific northwest regional manager, offered a string of reasons why they wanted to get out of the Birch Bay hostel. One was an inability of the organization to manage long-term leases due to staff turnover. “This is mostly run by a volunteer board,” said La Civita, whose position is paid.

LaCivita also said the parks department wasn’t keen on renewing the lease. “The reasons they told me was because of significant capital improvements planned for Bay Horizon Park and they wanted maintenance staff to stay there,” she said. Givler was perplexed. “That’s kind of a stretch,” she said, adding they had discussed the potential of having a maintenance worker staying in the building in the future. “It’s interesting how they interpreted that.”

Rural hostels were of minor interest to her organization, LaCivita said, and they were focussing on getting a hostel open again in Bellingham. “The majority of hostelers are very dependent on public transit and looking to hit cities,” she said. “We have a hard time getting interest in rural hostels. With the lack of visibility in Birch Bay we’ve always had problems.” She added the proximity of the state park made it a more likely destination for low-budget travelers.

LaCivita said the number of overnight stays at the hostel had been steadily declining for a decade, with a little over 650 stays last year. Maschger said hostel usage has been going up. He counted 668 overnight stays in 2001, which he said was an increase of over 100 from the year before. In the last year he counted over 800 overnight stays. He attributed the difference in increased use of the hostel by groups, such as bicycle clubs and youth groups. “I count each individual. I guess they don’t,” he said.
David Paulsen, director of the HI western field office said the bottom line was it cost too much to operate a hostel unless the volumes of overnight stays were significantly higher, in the 3,000 to 5,000 range. “As labor costs have gone up it has required us to have a higher overnight threshold,” he said. Maschger said he was paid $3,000 for the season, from May to October, and was given an apartment at the hostel.

Givler said the parks department would look at any proposal that came forward for use of the building, including those from the private sector. However, she cautioned that, while the rent was negligible the older building did have higher than normal maintenance costs. “Anyone who looks at it should take that into account,” she said.

Ultimately she said she hopes the building will be used more rather than less. “We want to make sure the best use for the public and for parks is in there,” she said. “We’ll listen to any proposal.”.

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