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Whidbey Telecom brings the future to Freeland

Chris Michalopoulos, a Whidbey Telecom employee, greets old friend Angela Vosburg with a hug as she stops by for lunch at the WiFire cafe. As owner of Freeland’s China City restaurant, she enjoys the warm ambiance of the cafe. She also supports the company’s alternative energy approach, as China City also offers plug-in stations for electric cars.  - Jim Larsen / The Record
Chris Michalopoulos, a Whidbey Telecom employee, greets old friend Angela Vosburg with a hug as she stops by for lunch at the WiFire cafe. As owner of Freeland’s China City restaurant, she enjoys the warm ambiance of the cafe. She also supports the company’s alternative energy approach, as China City also offers plug-in stations for electric cars.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / The Record

In 1953, David Henny purchased Whidbey Telephone Co. with its 500 customers and soon decided to bury the overhead telephone lines underground.

The decision showed foresight but was not without controversy. The Whidbey Record editor at the time wrote sarcastically that if the phone lines were to be buried then the sewer lines should be placed overhead on wooden poles. Fortunately, that idea didn’t carry the day.

In the ensuing decades, South Whidbey’s telephone company became known as one of the most dependable phone systems in the state, generally immune to any snow and ice storms that raged above ground. No matter the weather, Whidbey Telephone customers could always call Puget Power and complain the electricity was out.

David Henny is gone, but his spirit of building for the future lives on in his son George Henny and daughter Julia Henny DeMartini who last fall opened a futurist new company headquarters in Freeland, transforming an abandoned old eyesore into a modern work of useful art that has customers scratching their heads and asking themselves, “Am I really on Whidbey Island?”

George and Julie are co-CEO’s of what is now known as Whidbey Telecom, a company also run by David’s widow, Marion Henny, whose title is chairperson of the board. While David was futuristic, Marion is down-to-earth and wrote the company’s core values and corporate culture, which George carries around on a card in his wallet. It’s summed up in the company motto written by his mother: “An attitude of service is the foundation of our company.”

The new headquarters building is signified by a design that’s rustic enough to fit the community of Freeland, but modern enough to have dozens of solar panels dominate its roofline and work by Whidbey’s finest artists decorating not only the interior and exterior, but also the imaginative parking lot broken up by the rock work, flowing water, outdoor sculptures and gardens that replaced the vast wasteland of asphalt that fronted the old Harbor Village Mall.

The mall had been vacant for several years, a deteriorating eyesore for the community. It was a sad reminder for older islanders who remember when it was alive with businesses like the Brass Ring, Michael’s women’s clothing, Video Videnda and  Mindy’s restaurant. But they all faded away, leaving only a shell of a building.

The Hennys purchased the mall, gutted it and hired the design team at Whidbey’s Flatrock Productions and contractor Ed Gemkow to start over.

“We wanted to use local contractors and artists to give us a building with a sense of style and high class but still reflective of the South Whidbey community,” George Henny said.

Once a visitor makes it past the parking lot artwork, it’s a whole new world inside. To the left if the WiFire cafe, whose slogan is “coffee / community / connectivity.” For computer lovers, it’s got the fastest WiFi for miles around, and for comfort lovers there’s a toasty fireplace. Baristas like Angelica Takacs and Savannah Randal serve up Mukilteo Coffee  specialties, hot chocolate, fresh pastries, panini sandwiches, soup, and much more with a smile accompanied by an affordable bill.

Hanging on the walls are large video screens displaying Whidbey scenic vistas and products available in the display of communications products, including some from George Henny’s favorite company, Apple Computer. They  sell iPhones and iPads through a deal with Verizon, as well as Google Androids, digital still and video cameras, tablet computers and other temptations for the wireless generation. Friendly staff gives expert advice and customers can sit down in comfortable chairs and sofas and try them out. It’s called a “customer experience center,” not a store.

Huge photos of David Henny’s old telephone switchboard equipment decorate one wall, the wood of which came from an ancient cedar pulled up from the cold waters of Lake Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula. “The woodwork by Kim Hoelting is breathtaking,” Henny said. Metal work by Tim Leonard attracts attention inside and out, and the company logo, Henny admits, was inspired by Apple Computer. His iPad is like an extra appendage that goes with him everywhere.

Whidbey Telecom’s 12,500 customers can come in, sip coffee with friends,  have their equipment serviced in back, or book the use of a huge conference room seating 100 or more facing an enormous video screen on the wall.

“We are their trusted source for technology,” Henny said.

Customers are drawn there for a number of reasons. Angela Vosburg, who owns the nearby China City restaurant, stops by for lunch in the WiFire cafe because she likes the fire and intimate atmosphere. She also shares a vision of the future with Whidbey Telecom, as her restaurant features several electric car plug-ins in the parking lot. Whidbey Telcom has four such plug-ins, which take credit cards and fill up a car with electricity for three dollars. A Tessla club from Seattle stopped by to get juiced up, Henny said, and one islander converted his pickup into an electric vehicle and stops by once in a while. But the point is that Whidbey Telecom is ready for the future when it arrives, and Whidbey Telecom believes electric cars will be common in coming years.

One recent day, Kathy Borson stopped by with her son Ben, 12, to enjoy hot chocolate together. She loves the place. “I like it very much, I’d rank it near the top,” she said. She also longs to use those electric car charging stations one day. “We’ll wait for the first generation of electric cars but then we’ll be looking for one,” she said.

Business people in Freeland certainly welcome the change. Dean Hatt owns an investment firm located across the street and once worked as a box boy in Payless, the grocery story that originally inhabited the building before it became Harbor Village Mall.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful, it’s great,” Hatt said of the Whidbey Telecom facility. “In the multi-media room I can hold quiet meetings and give presentations to investors. They did a nice job; a first class job, and all the employees are excited and happy.”

The employees admit they enjoy coming to work. “I love it here,” said barista Randall, who started when the building opened in late September. “It’s really nice, my customers and coworkers are great, it’s beautiful, and everything we serve is of the highest quality.”

What was once Whidbey Telephone has been Whidbey Telecom for years now, offering telephone and internet service, as well as home security and business solutions.

But the Henny family still keeps their eye on the future. Next summer, they’ll start offering TV packages to their customers and put further emphasis on cloud computing. George Henny isn’t even sure Whidbey Telecom will be the correct name for a growing company of 130 island employees that offers so many new services.

A new name, no doubt, is just one more thing the company will be working on in the future. Just the way David Henny would have liked it.

 

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