Vashon’s hostel faces unsure future

Judy Mulhair is trying to sell Vashon’s only hostel, which she has operated for 27 years. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Judy Mulhair is trying to sell Vashon’s only hostel, which she has operated for 27 years.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Vashon’s only hostel and campground — a whimsical Western-themed collection of teepees, wagons, barns and cabins — will close at the end of September unless a buyer materializes for the unique establishment.

AYH Ranch Hostel, on Cove Road, has seen more than 25 summers on Vashon, balmy seasons when its 100 spaces were filled with travelers from near and far. But owner Judy Mulhair, who opened the hostel in 1982, said she’s ready to shutter the Island fixture.

“It’s come to the time where I’m too old to fix covered wagons and too old to put up teepees,” said Mulhair, 65. “It’s just too much at my age.”

A grandmother who spends winters working as a flight attendant for United Airlines, Mulhair said she’d hoped to pass the family business on to one of her two sons, who spent much of their youth on the rolling 10-acre property.

But neither son is interested in running the Island’s hostel, so Mulhair listed it for sale more than a year ago; she recently dropped its price to just under $1 million.

Mulhair said she’s seen some interest in the property, which houses a smattering of teepees, each with a few beds inside, two one-person covered wagons and several buildings with more traditional indoor living.

Some have expressed interest in turning the drug- and alcohol-free property into a retreat center or single-family residence, she said. But Mulhair and others are hoping a buyer will come along who’d like to keep the teepees, and the hostelers, around.

“I’m still in the belief that something good will happen,” said Islander Jill Heryford, who said the hostel has a place in her heart.

“Every time I go there, there’s something special about it, even though it’s on the Island,” she said. “It brings in people from all over the planet — different cultures, different languages. ... That place just makes me smile.”

When Heryford and her husband decided to move to Vashon, they stayed in a teepee at the hostel while they looked for a home to buy.

“I remember negotiating the terms of my home loan from that teepee,” she said. “I remember sitting on the cell phone in the teepee and playing hardball, and getting that loan.”

She’s one of countless Islanders and hostelers from around the world who have shared landmarks and everyday occasions at the charismatic hostel.

“It has been a pleasure to meet people from other countries and give them lifts to town or to the hostel,” said Sharon Munger, a neighbor. “Judy has always had a tremendous amount of energy for the hostel.”

Nancy Vanderpool, treasurer of Vashon’s Interfaith Council on Homelessness, said the hostel is a “lovely spot” and she’s sorry to see it close.

“It has been helpful to some people getting a start on the Island,” she said. “It’s even more affordable than a bed and breakfast. There’s a nice shared experience.”

In recent years, however, the hostel has not provided much of a safety net to the Island’s homeless and transitional community because Mulhair has declined to house transients, Vanderpool said.

“It would be so nice if some of it could be a youth hostel and some of it could be transitional housing,” she said. “That would be very helpful for the organization I work for.”

The hostel was Mulhair’s dream: a place that celebrated youth and playfulness — cowboys and Indians, the Wild West — and put food on the table for her family.

But since 2001 — when the 9/11 tragedy hurt the travel industry worldwide — only the last two years have been profitable, she said, a factor in her decision to close the hostel.

“We’re just not that busy with the economy the way it is,” Mulhair said. “The present economy has really taken a toll on all hostels. They’re all down 25 percent, and we’re down 40.”

In addition to lagging profits, the Vashon Hostel would face major competition in the next year if it stayed open.

For years, Vashon has been home to one of few hostels in the Seattle area. But soon, a mega-hostel with 350 beds will open in Seattle, Mulhair said. She’d rather not compete, choosing to bow out of hostelry before the giant opens.

Another issue that’s taken the joy out of running the hostel in the past few years is the ongoing battle she’s had with King County over zoning and building regulations, she said.

When she opened her hostel in 1982, she was the county’s first hostel, and she worked hard with the King County Council to create an ordinance that would govern hostels, she said.

But after months of work, the ordinance was never signed into law. And decades later, when this came to light, Mulhair found herself with no legal ground to stand on.

“I exist as what I am, and have to try to work around their zoning,” she said.

Though the property has been dubbed a legal campground, Mulhair said a hostel is much more than that, and she’s been mired in bureaucratic red tape surrounding the diverse and sometimes nontraditional buildings and structures on her property.

“It was a beautiful dream, but it turned into a nightmare with the county,” she said.

Mulhair said she feels she’s been unfairly targeted for scrutiny by the county. She has a damage lawsuit pending against the county, she added.

“Emotionally, I’m drained,” Mulhair said. “It’s been a really good wonderful thing, and it’s sad to see it go. It’s going to be hard to close it, ... but I’ve got to calm things down in my life.”

From 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, Vashon Hostel will be open to the public to celebrate the hostel’s 27 years on Vashon, and the 75th anniversary in the United States of Hostelling International, the organization Vashon Hostel is chartered with.

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