Even COVID can’t kill their B&B dream

When two aspiring bed and breakfast innkeepers tackled the renovation of an old house in Port Austin, they could never have imagined the winding and sometimes rocky road ahead or the tenacity it would require to create the Port Austin Bed and Breakfast out of what had most recently been an adult foster care home.

When we first met Joanne Murphy and her husband Lance in the summer of 2018, they envisioned a May 2020 grand opening for their five-room bed and breakfast, with a soft opening in the late summer of 2019. That was the goal.

But everything took longer to accomplish. 2019 brought a personal financial challenge, a slower pace of work by the couple’s dedicated team of tradespeople because of the team’s prior commitments, and a need for more elbow grease than Joanne and Lance ever thought they had in them.

And then the pandemic happened. May 2021 is the new target for the grand opening of Port Austin Bed and Breakfast, located on the town’s main business street a few blocks south of the harbor.

For the third time in three years, I interviewed Joanne as we sat on the front porch in vintage wicker chairs.

To start at the beginning of this saga see:

We pick up the story of Port Austin Bed and Breakfast from there…

You mentioned a financial setback.

Very unexpected. It had been our plan to sell our house in Grosse Pointe Park and move to Port Austin as soon as the owner’s quarters and kitchen here were​ habitable​. Lance has been a work-at-home employee of Verizon for two years. Moving here would allow us to be together as a family, including our son Zack, and to eliminate the expense of owning two houses.

Days after we put our house on the market in May 2019, the local school board voted to close our neighborhood elementary school. Prior to that decision, houses in our neighborhood were selling within days. After almost a year, we finally closed on the sale of that house and ​moved in the midst of the pandemic​.

Painter works on trim at Port Austin Bed and Breakfast
Trim details get a coat of white paint on the north side porch of the future Port Austin Bed and Breakfast.

The news of a deadly coronavirus and Michigan’s stay-home order must have dealt another blow.

Yes, in the same way the pandemic has posed challenges for everyone. But in significant other ways, no.

No?

It gave us clarity and opportunity.

How so?

As parents of an adult son with multiple physical and ​developmental disabilities, our clear priority was to keep him ​and ourselves s​afe. With all the unknowns about the virus, we weren’t comfortable with the prospect of opening the B&B.

The opportunity came in the form of more time. Once the lockdown continued into April, we knew it would not be possible for the remaining contractor work to be completed ​in time.

COVID-19 has given us a chance to step back and take the time to do what we always envisioned with furnishing ​and decorating ​the rooms and common areas.

Although last year we had moved our opening to August 2020​, if we’d held ourselves to meet that deadline, I think it just might have killed me.

The house has come such a long way in the year since I visited.

Thank you. Lance recently commented that since ​we l​ive with the incremental improvements on a daily basis, we don’t really notice the progress until we see it through the eyes of someone like you.

We’re getting there, though. The painter​s​ will finish this week. The gutters are installed, with leaf guards soon to be added.​ That will complete the work on the house, and we can look forward to landscaping. ​These are occasions for small celebrations.

I love the story of your instant front lawn.

That was a whole-family effort ​in ​June​ 2019​. We laid sod on a Wednesday. On Saturday, we had a couple hundred people sitting on the grass listening to a band playing on our front porch. Port Austin’s Porch Fest community concert event is a summer highlight. I hope we get to participate every year.

As we toured the rooms, I can see how guests will benefit from the extra time you now have to furnish them.

Future reception area for Port Austin B&B
Built-in cabinets in the reception area will contain gift shop items. A peek into the dining room shows a mid-century modern piece the Murphys are auditioning for that spot in keeping with the mix of furniture styles they envision.

We still don’t know who built the house, but four families made this place their single-family home over the years. In four of our five rooms, we plan to honor those families by including some furniture or art that evokes the periods in which they lived here.

For example, Room ​3​ has some Art Deco pieces, and Room ​4​, a mid-century vibe.

But with design help from my sister Terri in Chicago, I’m taking an eclectic approach.​ A mix of new and old. ​This B&B will offer a taste of what life was like back when, but it definitely won’t be a museum.

The en-suite guest bathrooms are all fabulous, by the way, but what about the fifth guest room?

Room 5 will honor a psychiatric nurse who moved here with her family in 1968. Mental asylums, as they were still called then, were shutting their doors, leaving many residents with no place to go. She and her family gave them a home.

Later, this became an adult foster care home, until closing in 2014.​ We want to honor her and the many residents who called this home during the past 50 years.

I know you hate to relive it, but fans of home renovation stories will appreciate the horror of that one thing that happened.

What are you, the National Enquirer? Okay.​… In the spring of 2017 we began demolition on the second floor. When I pulled down the ceiling over the hallway, a broken sewage pipe that had been duct-taped together came apart, dangling from the ceiling and dumping its remaining contents on the carpeted floor and me.​

Gross!

Oh, yes, but there was a silver lining. In the cleanup, that’s when we discovered that the glued-down carpeting was concealing gorgeous ​inlaid-wood​ f​loors.

Which look beautiful now.

The ordeal of removing carpet glue from the floors is another memory I can’t wait to forget.

I can highly recommend gel stain as a timesaver for getting a rich, beautiful wood finish. You don’t need to sand the wood down to the level of bare wood, and you don’t need to varnish it. When it dries, it leaves just the right amount of sheen.

With respect to Zack, two years ago you hoped to involve students from his culinary arts school in the operation of the B&B.

That goal is now focused on Huron County, which I believe and hope wants to do more to provide supported independent living and supported employment​ for individuals with disabilities​. ​We hope to work with them to develop training and job sites for supported employment for individuals in the area. The opportunity the B&B offers is that many of the job skills are also essential life skills, such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.

People like Zack are capable of contributing​ and​ of​ performing m​any typical job ​task​s ​, but they might need more training up front and more support ​or accommodations ​while doing the task. Zack, for example, is ​a very good prep chef. With the accommodations of a cutting glove, a stool, and a visual model, Zack’s cuts are clean and consistent. Thus, I can count on uniformly cut vegetables ready for cooking. Zack has been doing his own laundry, cleaning his own bathroom and bedroom for many years. In this case, his acquired life-skills translate to job skills.

People with ​developmental disabilities find it difficult to get jobs, but ​with the proper supports in place, they can be a business’s most loyal employees.

What’s next for you, Lance, and Zack and the future Port Austin Bed and Breakfast?

Bay window in Room 3 has two mismatched chairs and a round table.
Three of the Murphys’ vintage finds are under consideration for Room 3. Lots of furniture refinishing, repairing and reupholstering will take place in the house over the next several months. Notice the refinished floor. Guest room beds, by the way, are 100 percent brand new. No squeaks.

We still have lots ​of decorating, purchasing ​of furniture​, and​ refinishing ​of our vintage finds —  ​hands-on stuff that we couldn’t do when workers needed free access to all spaces.

Landscaping is high on the list. We’ll move these hostas in front of the porch to the side yard and plant ​Invincibelle Spirit II or Invincibelle Ruby  ​hydrangea here. I also ​ordered​ 1,000 daffodil bulbs to plant in the middle of the circle driveway​ this fall as part of phase 1 in our overall landscaping plan.

Adding some raised garden beds and a greenhouse out back are two projects we’ll work on as a family​ this fall​. The greenhouse will incorporate original ​windows salvaged ​from the renovation.

From the encouraging comments on your Facebook page and the press you’re getting, it seems many people eagerly await your opening the doors.

We’re grateful. It’s part of what drives ​us​ to roll up​ our​ sleeves each and every day. ​Our website is due to go live in a couple weeks, and in September we should be able to start taking reservations for 2021.

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Why they value belonging to MBBA

Joanne ​and Lance have been Aspiring Innkeeper members of the Michigan B&B Association since 201​7​.

Joanne says,​ “The MBBA has been invaluable since the beginning with the conferences, online innkeeper chats, resources and mentoring. There is so much more to running a B&B than cooking, cleaning and laundry. The innkeepers’ private Facebook forum offers a wealth of information, experience and advice provided by fellow innkeepers across the state.

“From the moment the pandemic became an issue in Michigan, the MBBA immediately sprang into action, staying on top of executive orders, cleaning protocols, PPP loans, etc., and disseminated that information to us all. Online chats increased so members could learn and share information and experiences in the rapidly changing environment. From the administration to the members, this is such a supportive organization. Joining this organization is one of the best decisions we made.​“

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If you are an aspiring innkeeper…

The Michigan Bed and Breakfast Association will hold a virtual workshop for aspiring B&B innkeepers on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

Open to aspiring B&B innkeepers anywhere. Affordable. Informative. Essential. Participate from home.

More details to be announced. Meanwhile, ask to be on the mailing list.