Catalina Island News

Catalina Conservancy Buys Catherine Hotel

Catalina Island Conservancy

The Catherine Hotel, best known as the home of the "coldest, cheapest beer in town," changed hands today. The blue-and-white "cottage" that most visitors to Avalon walk by on their way into town, has enjoyed a decades-long run as a popular local hang-out that comes alive with music on select nights during the off-season, and on many a summer night. This week, the Catherine Hotel began its next incarnation when escrow on the property closed and the hotel was acquired by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

“We are very excited about the acquisition of this property and how it will enable us to enrich our conservation, education and recreation program offerings; and vastly improve service to visitors to Avalon and Island residents,” said Ann Muscat, Conservancy president and CEO.

“We have for years struggled with needs for transient accommodations. We will continue to operate the new location as a hotel, enabling us to provide affordable, temporary accommodations for researchers, student interns and others doing short-term projects for us, as well as provide accommodations for eco-tourists.”

The purchase was assisted by Cliff Hague, Vice Chairman of the Conservancy’s Board of Directors. “Cliff donated many hours of time to resolve various issues related to the sale,” said Muscat, “and we are very grateful for his assistance.”

The location of the Conservancy’s main office off the beaten path has also made it challenging to raise awareness about what Muscat calls “the special ambiance and experience of the interior,” which represents 88 percent of the Island.

“We will relocate our visitor and Island resident serving activities to the Catherine Hotel and maintain our offices at their current location at Conservancy House on Clarissa Ave,” Muscat said. “This will allow us to significantly upgrade the experience for Avalon visitors and Island residents who seek information about Catalina’s unique plants and animals, conservation efforts, or who want to experience the interior.”

According to Muscat, upgrades will include exciting educational exhibits; an improved retail space; potentially, a themed food and beverage experience that could include live music; eco-tour packages; information about the Island’s two nature centers, Airport and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden; a refreshed and enhanced façade, and more.

“We’re excited about having a new opportunity to share information about Catalina’s wild places and why the Island is so special as an ecological destination,” said Leslie Baer, the Conservancy’s chief of educational outreach and marketing. “Our staff and partners are doing groundbreaking conservation and science, and we’re proud to share those stories.”

Baer also noted that surveying done by both the Conservancy and the Chamber suggests that the more visitors to Avalon know about what there is to do on the Island, the longer they stay and the more often they come back.
“We are looking forward to increasing visitor awareness about how they can augment their stay in Avalon through taking advantage of hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, touring, our Nature Centers, the Airport, and the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden,” Baer said.

Mel Dinkel, the Conservancy’s chief operating officer who overseas visitor services, noted that “The size and configuration of Conservancy House have made it a challenge to properly serve visitors to Avalon.

“Currently, Conservancy staff provide general information about the Island and camping information; issue hiking permits, biking memberships, stage Jeep Eco Tours and run a small retail operation in a footprint of less than 200 square feet while welcoming more than 20,000 visitors to the building annually,” he said.

“There are summer days when the lobby is packed and the line winds outside into the driveway and hot sun, which is not the kind of experience we want to offer visitors to Avalon,” Dinkel said.

“The new location will allow us to create an exceptional experience that we hope will engender good will, encourage return visitorship, and ultimately support our programs in conservation, education and recreation.”

The purchase comes as part of the recommendations of William McDonough+ Partners, who collaborated with the Conservancy to develop “Imagine Catalina,” the Conservancy’s 20-year master plan completed late last November. The purchase was made possible, in part, by a seven-figure gift from an anonymous donor.

“This individual recognized during our Imagine Catalina discussions the tremendous opportunities that a front¬street presence would offer us to advance our conservation, education, and recreation initiatives,” said Muscat.

“McDonough + Partners envisioned a front street presence for the Conservancy, so visitors would more readily become aware of all that Avalon and Catalina have to offer, including the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden and Nature Center at Avalon Canyon, and a vast nature preserve worth staying for and experiencing.”

Additional Imagine Catalina initiatives are already underway: A mobile nature center will debut at the Conservancy Ball in April, and be available to serve guests at the opening of the summer season in Two Harbors. The restoration of Eagles Nest Lodge is now in the design and permitting phase, with reconstruction hoped to begin later this year, pending permits. Improvements at Airport in the Sky are also underway. More than a half a million dollars in investment is being made to upgrade facilities at Middle Ranch, home base for the organization’s Conservation and Facilities staff.

Events supported by the Conservancy that currently include five running events; the 2010 and upcoming Grand Prix hosted by the City and Island Company; the Santa Catalina Film Festival; and most recently, the Gran Fondo mountain bike event that will take place in May; are all part of an ongoing effort to “create win-win partnerships with the Avalon community,” Muscat said.

“With improved access to visitors to Avalon, this new location will allow us to be an even more effective partner with the business community.” Summed Muscat, “We are committed to sharing our enthusiasm and understanding of Catalina’s natural side, to providing an exceptional guest experience, and to growing interest in Catalina and all it has to offer. This new location will go a long way in helping us to welcome scientists, educators and others who can help fuel our conservation work, as well as to reach and delight current and new visitors.”