The future of the Pierpont Inn lies in the balance

The future of the Pierpont Inn lies in the balance

Ventura County’s cultural icon goes up for sale

By Michael Sullivan 01/19/2012

The Pierpont Inn and Spa, a Southern California cultural icon and century-old getaway, is going up for sale, again. The beautiful but beleaguered property off Sanjon Road in Ventura has had its fair share of troubles over the last decade or so and the creditors are knocking. The current owner, Grace H. Ahn, trustee of the Ahn Family Trust, is millions of dollars in debt — $6 million to Community West Bank in Goleta, and $2.44 million to the Garrett Family Trust, plus mounting credit card debt totaling more than $170,000. The owner filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, as a sort of new strategizing and reorganizing effort, but the bank is apparently calling in its loan and the trustee is aiming to sell — listed at $8.5 million.
That hasn’t stopped Ed Campbell, the inn’s executive director, who took over management in October 2011, via Pierpont USA LLC, from pursuing his vision of restoring the inn’s reputation and services to those of its glory days. Campbell, a world-renowned architect and native to Southern California, born and raised in Santa Barbara and a resident of Ventura since 1995, was asked by Ahn to take over running the business to get it back in the black.
“I really believe in the inn and its potential and believe that, if properly managed, it can come back to the status it once was,” Campbell said.
He stated that the management style changed dramatically with the two last owners, shifting from a high-quality, service-oriented hospitality business to a budget concept — cut costs and save money, essentially to make money.
“When the Garretts (who owned the inn since 1999 and it had been in their family for nearly 100 years) sold it, it was riding high as far as occupancy and events and weddings. It was really marketable,” Campbell said, adding that the Garretts had opened the Pierpont Racquet Club in 1976 and remain the current owners of that. He continued, “When Central Management Inc. took over, they had a different perspective on how to run a hotel, a budget concept, and [focused on] lower end pricing, less quality food and minimal liquor. They were looking at bottom line. Then they sold it to the trust and it began reducing services more.”
But Campbell knows that isn’t the way to run the Pierpont Inn. Having visited the inn since he was a teenager, he said that the way to bring the Pierpont back is to revamp its identity and offer all the services that had either been discontinued or were on their way out.
He has hired a new chef to jump-start the Austen Restaurant, with a new menu starting in February, and he plans to have happy hour during the week. He envisions the banquet hall filled with local events, from theater to chamber breakfasts. He has the weekends booked for weddings throughout the summer, but wants to boost occupancy during the week by working with local organizations to bring their guests there to do business.
The Pierpont Inn isn’t just a place to stay, it’s an experience. That’s what Cynthia Thompson remembers of her tenure as a historian and period designer for the Garretts between 1999 and 2005.
“It is not only my statement, but thousands of people from past to the present say, ‘It is one of the best experiences of my life,’ ” Thompson said.
She reminisced not only about her time designing the cottages inside and out to resemble different time periods, and her work getting the Pierpont Inn on the registry for Historic Hotels of America, making it an official landmark, but she recalled the hotel’s rich history dating back to 1910. She spoke of the famous Hollywood actors and directors who would come to the inn for a reprieve from their chaotic world. She talked about its ups and downs, from struggling through the Great Depression to its popularity during the oil boom era in Ventura and then the construction of Highway 101 and all that brought with it — good and bad. She even noted when the Bush family stayed at the inn. But she said, in light of its recent struggles, she believes that the history, its lifeblood of a rich lineage being passed from one generation to the next from 1910 to 2005, will sustain the Pierpont Inn.
“The inn is competing with a lot of [things, including the flailing economy]. It is still struggling to find its identity, but I do know, the imbued history of the people who have loved this place will help it find its way back,” she said.
As the sale looms, Campbell’s vision may or may not come to fruition, his position as director hanging in the balance. Should it sell, the new owners may opt for another management team. He said that his hope, however, is that the bank will work with the trustee, or perhaps a new owner, and will give his team more time to undo the mess that left the Pierpont Inn in financial disarray. But he remains steadfast in his mission despite what may happen in the near future. The soul of the inn, he said, lies in native Ventura. Should an outside team come in and not understand the fact that it is a cultural destination, not just overnight accommodations, the inn, again, could fall into financial upheaval.
If Campbell is afforded the opportunity to continue to manage the inn, he said he would most likely place an offer to purchase the property in the future.
The attorney for the Ahn Family Trust did not return calls  for comment.

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