New owners take the helm at Freeland’s Harbour Inn

Gwen and Richard Soto have traveled thousands of miles to many different places in the world, and have called Washington D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle home.

Recently, their travels led them to South Whidbey. While they could have rented a room to vacation here a while — as they usually do when they’re on the road — they decided instead to purchase an entire motel.

Last month, the couple took ownership of Freeland’s Harbour Inn Motel.

A bit of an unlikely pair to find running a small hotel in a small town, the Sotos have made a dramatic move away from big city life — even though it adds an extra step to Richard’s commute as a documentary film producer.

“We were ready for a change,” Richard Soto said. “The idea of owning an inn or B&B appealed to us. It was time to try something new.”

Once the idea took hold, Richard researched the inn business with the same thoroughness he employs on his films. At first, the Sotos made an offer on a small inn in LaConner. It seemed like a good location to them, because that’s where they moor their 32-foot 1949 Monk wooden cruiser. Richard admits the boat is a passion of his. He hopes to move the boat to Oak Harbor’s Coronet Bay Marina.

But just five days from closing on the LaConner property, the Sotos got what they considered a better offer from Freeland. Nancy and Terry Whitaker, the Harbour Inn Motel’s previous owners, contacted the Sotos and offered to sell them their motel.

The property, located next to a busy section of Highway 525 just north of Bayview, had been on and off the market several times during the past few years.

Richard Soto said he and his wife decided the motel was a better choice than the LaConner inn.

“We had looked at the property before so we knew about it,” Richard Soto said. “The decision was easy.”

Impressed with the comfortable living quarters at the motel — something they said was lacking in LaConner — the Sotos said a motel was more their style anyway. When they travel, they usually pick hotels and motels over B&Bs. However, the decision did not go over well with everyone.

“Our family was somewhat skeptical,” Richard said. “An inn or B&B seemed more romantic to them. The motel idea took some getting used to.”

Any romantic thoughts the Sotos had about the business were quickly tempered. Since taking over, they have had a full house through Mystery Weekend, the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference, and itinerant construction workers who are working on several South Whidbey projects.

“We’ve had baptism by fire,” said Richard.

That baptism included a plugged toilet at 1 a.m. and the remains of a food fight left in one of the rooms.

But the two are taking it in stride and learning as they go. At the same time, they are trying to bring a bit of B&B feel to the business. Gwen Soto has added a personal touch by providing lodgers continental breakfasts of her home-baked scones and muffins. It is something small that brings innkeeper and lodger together.

“The personal side of the business, meeting and getting to know our customers, is very appealing to me,” she said.

The Sotos are already personalizing the motel. They have painted the rooms and are in the process of adding new bed covers and artwork. On the motel’s grounds, they plan to place stone pillars at the entrance and to move the four cottages on the property nearer the main building.

When he is not a hotel manager these days, Richard Soto is an Emmy-award-winning documentary film producer. He has done work for PBS’ “Frontline” and The Discovery Channel, including “Organs of the Body.” One of his Frontline films was “Potomac Fever,” a documentary of the first 100 days in office for two freshman Congressmen. He has also worked as marketing director for Seattle public television station KCTS and was the producer of several cooking shows.

His next project will be about whirlpools around the world — something that will give him a more satisfying swirl than that clogged toilet at the motel. Prior to their move to South Whidbey, they Sotos lived in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. Now in a more rural setting, they say they are enthusiastic about their new business and about contributing to their new community.

Both believe it is part of their responsibility as business owners in a small town to participate in the the life around them. In fact, Richard will be attending the next Freeland Subarea Planning Commission meeting.

“We are living right in the heart of Freeland, a crossroads where people meet, buy groceries, bank and pick up mail,” Gwen Soto said. “In a way, it feels like a city.”

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