Throughout Southeast Alaska, both short and longer-term rental housing is incredibly tight — in Ketchikan, developers have even floated the idea of using portions of a former state ferry to alleviate the strain of finding housing for temporary workers.
The owners of Wrangell’s burger joint are looking to help by leasing a decades-old bed and breakfast to try and meet the local demand for hotel and short-term rental space.
Wrangell locals may know the red-roofed cedar — now under new management — as the Old Sourdough Lodge.
“It’s all new,” says Josh Young with a laugh. “We make burgers. I’ve stayed in a hotel before, but that’s about it.”
Sitting in the harbor view great room of the lodge, Clarissa “Rissa” and Josh Young say they’ve had running a lodge on the brain for more than a decade, but it’s finally panning out.
“It’s whole new adventure,” Clarissa said, gesturing around at the spacious room.
“It really is,” agreed Josh. “It’s an opportunity, a real opportunity. It’s really nice. And it gives us the opportunity to stay in Wrangell, which ultimately was — is — a big deal for us.”
“And,” Clarissa added, “We’ve given the town something good to talk about, you know, like positive vibes. I think it has probably been one of the coolest things, just everywhere I turn people like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys, congratulations.’ That feels really good because it feels like the community is super supportive, and really wants to see this happen, so I think that’s great. And this is such a beautiful building to not have something happening in here, you know, I just love it quirks and all. I love this building.”
Like many other Alaska communities, Wrangell’s short- and long-term housing markets have very little wiggle room. Apartments on local “For Rent” pages are often snapped up same-day, and before the Youngs re-opened the lodge for business, the visitor housing market consisted of one hotel and a few small bed and breakfasts. Josh and Clarissa hope they can ease the pressure.
They said they’d been looking for a new business endeavor, a place to expand beyond the covered cedar porch of J&W’s on Front Street. Plus, they also have a more personal connection to the old Sourdough Lodge.
“This was our wedding and reception area right in here,” Clarissa said of the building’s large, harbor-facing great room.
“My grandpa stayed in one of those rooms back there,” Josh added with a laugh. “Yeah, it was pretty cool. All our wedding photos are in this room.”
The 15,000-square-foot building has existed, in some form, since the mid-1980s, when it started out as a simple modular. The cedar structure of today grew around it over the years. There’s a framed series of photos of the building’s progression in the kitchen.
From the 1980s to 2016 it was a tourism lodge. For a few years in the late 2010s, it functioned as an assisted living facility, and the borough rented space at the old Sourdough Lodge as a quarantine facility during the height of the pandemic.
But it’s no longer going to be known as the old Sourdough Lodge. Rissa and Josh have settled on “The Cedar House Inn.”
In total, the inn has 18 rooms, but the Youngs say they’re trying not to overextend themselves too quickly. They’re starting out with renting eight, and just for shorter-term rentals.
But they plan to rent long-term rooms too — maybe some of the larger suites in the upstairs portion of the building. Josh said they’ve been approached by a number of individuals and organizations around town about the possibility of longer leases, including local health care provider SEARHC.
He said the goal is to have longer-term rooms available by August.
“If we try to go full tilt right now, I think it’s a recipe for failure,” Josh said. “And it would probably sacrifice the quality of service we’re able to put forward.”
One thing Josh is committed to is getting the kitchen up and running. He’s an avid cook, even outside of the burger restaurant, and is enamored with the lodge’s American-made range and the commercial kitchen layout. The Youngs want to serve simple, sit-down breakfast — eggs, bacon, toast… maybe some sourdough pancakes as an homage to the history of the building.
It’s been a breakneck process to pull together all the little things needed to manage a hotel, Josh said: “The last three weeks have been insane.”
And they said they couldn’t have done it without the help of their five kids, who range from ages 7 to 15. The oldest has been holding down the fort at the burger place. The second-oldest wants to be head housekeeper. The younger kids have been unpacking the stacks and stacks of Amazon boxes.
Clarissa calls it “a good education.”
“It’s phenomenal to be able to provide your kids with something like that,” Josh added. “That’s huge. Where else would they get exposure to the very beginning of starting a business like this and all of the little things? We share all of our trials and thoughts along the way and how we approach each challenge as it goes and move forward. And I think that’s an experience that it’s not available to most. Certainly wasn’t available to me.”
At the moment, the Youngs aren’t purchasing the building outright. Their lease-to-buy contract is 12 months — from this July to the next — but they hope to purchase what’s now the Cedar House Inn in April 2023, by having the building carry its rental cost by September and by renting 16 of the 18 rooms by October.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas,” Josh said.
For the Youngs, managing a lodge isn’t just about hosting tourists and visitors, or even longer-term stays.
“We want to make it into a place where the community, the local people can come and sit and relax and enjoy events at different times of the year,” he said. “It just fits for that it’s a real — it’s a homey place.”
Eventually, they hope to host family-style meals, maybe a big Christmas buffet. But before the community can come together and feel the small-town magic of Wrangell at the Cedar House Inn, the Youngs are focusing on building the base: eight rooms for rent, and breakfast, later this month.