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Another View: New Park Victorian B&B ignites optimism in Old Town Auburn

By: Gary Moffat / Guest Columnist
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  When motorists exit eastbound Interstate 80 at Maple Street, their first visual impression of Old Town Auburn isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.
   A tiny divider island comes up so quickly that first-time visitors may not notice the crunchy vegetation that perished in a deathbed of aggregate, but surely they cannot miss the larger exit expanses of gray riverbed rocks where survivability is limited to the hardiest of weeds.
   First impressions are summarily hardened with the visage of a gas station on the left, immediately followed by the former Mary Belle’s restaurant, sadly drab and now vacant for three years. The façade of this historic structure is slowly but relentlessly disintegrating, still punctuated in April with display windows sporting giant, white-painted Christmas trees, a forlorn holiday legacy. One large window smashed by vandals months ago has been boarded up with plywood.
   The building’s owner also holds title to a shabby gravel parking lot nearby, replete with a dowdy, rusting, corrugated metal shed that has served as a sentry since at least the Truman administration. Homeless drifters commonly congregate at a picnic table adjacent to public restrooms on the opposite side of Sacramento Street.
   Our Twitterer-in-Chief would sum it thusly: SAD!
   So, why am I more optimistic at this moment than at any time in my 15 years as the co-owner of a hospitality venue in the historic district? I can articulate my feelings in three words: The Park Victorian.
   This six-room bed and breakfast overlooking Old Town is on the verge of opening after quietly undergoing a total interior restoration. When it does, it’s new dynamic will likely change everything for many of the businesses below. Because for the first time in the modern era of the enclave, visitors will have the option of an upscale place to stay overnight.
   The Victorian and its 6.5 acres had languished on the market for ages, all but obscured from view by a veil of tangled vegetation. One of the first obstacles new owners and business partners Sam Hales and Kelly Cunningham tackled was to hack it back, revealing the raw potential of this amazing structure.
   As founder of the Saratoga Group — the same organization that revived the long-vacant and never-occupied white elephant of an office building at Elm and I-80 —Hales is a development pro. Cunningham is leading the Victorian’s remodel, focusing on preserving the majority of its original charm and flavor, while adding modern comforts and an elegant touch to the property.
   Hales and Cunningham are making no small plans. Over dinner recently, Hales and his wife, Adrienne, outlined their vision for the estate, with a next step of adding up to 40 small cottages, vastly expanding their hospitality footprint.
   Add it all up, and at fully booked capacity when completed, this scales up to potentially 100 visitors staying overnight night in Old Town.
   Imagine the very real impact on the restaurants and shops below, as well as the potential for the creation of new retail shops — something the Hales have in mind for a future stage of development.
   Other investors have made noises in the past about transforming the Victorian, but until now, no venture has escalated to the point where craftsmen have applied their skills to the building. And that’s because it takes much more than a “vision” to bring a project to fruition — it takes cold, hard Benjamins. And already, Hales and    Cunningham are doubling down with their recent purchase of the down-and-out Tuttle Mansion located Downtown, bookending B&Bs in both of Auburn’s business districts.
   Hales and Cunningham’s brand of hospitality dovetails perfectly with the personality and texture of classic Auburn.
It’s exactly the elixir we need as a catalyst for more sensible development: using the magnificent bones of what is already here and repurposing them into productive and meaningful economic engines.
   But there’s more terrific news about the revitalization of Old Town: On May 2, Davey Tree Experts will remove two large trees from Herschel Young Park, the first step in a complete makeover. Next, the paving brick surface will be expanded and leveled. Existing structures will be updated and new seating will be installed along with a new arched portal at the entry. It’s all designed to create a vastly brighter, more welcoming pocket park for visitors and locals alike.
   And on May 13, a group of volunteers will spend a Saturday morning on maintenance and replanting projects to address the freeway exit optics, buoyed by more than $2,000 raised from Old Town merchants. It’s all part of an Auburn-wide “Community Service Day.”
   So yeah, it’s all good, and I couldn’t be more delighted about the future. Now all that is needed is for a couple of recalcitrant, old-school property owners here to stop simply taking money out of Old Town and put some back in.
   Note: For an advance look at The Park Victorian, go online to ParkVictorian.com or check out their Facebook page.
  Gary Moffat is an Old Town business owner.