By Lisa Loomis
After 28 years as innkeeper and after many, many months of searching, owner and manager AnneMarie DeFreest has found her successor at the Inn at Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield.
This week DeFreest and one-half of her new team, Kim Donahue, went before the Waitsfield Select Board to obtain a liquor license for Donahue and her husband Jim.
Kim Donahue has been working with DeFreest since February; Jim Donahue will be joining her shortly. DeFreest will stay on for three years to help with the transition.
DeFreest, who made the decision to look for a successor so that she could focus on her health, has been friends with Jim Donahue for 30 years. In fact, it was last fall, while she was in the midst of radiation treatments for a second brain tumor that he came to visit her and the idea of he and his wife succeeding her came up.
"He had been so upset over the first tumor; I felt he didn't need to know. When he called to come visit, I had to tell him I was at Dartmouth undergoing radiation," DeFreest said.
VALUE OF COMMUNITY
"And I'm thrilled that the Donahues are going to follow me. Jim has been like a son to my father all these years and I'm happy that I didn't have to sell the inn to someone who wasn't going to understand the value of community," DeFreest said.
"Jim was with me the first time I stepped foot on the property after my parents bought it," she added.
After she and Jim got together last fall, he returned home to Wayne, New Jersey, and jokingly told his wife about the possibility of quitting their jobs and moving to Vermont to become innkeepers.
"I told him to go back and talk to them and that started the process," Kim Donahue said.
"We are thrilled to be taking over. I've been on premises since early this winter and coming up since December to get a feel for the place and immerse myself in the operations and culture," Kim Donahue said.
Kim Donahue is coming to Waitsfield from a position as vice president of marketing for Viking Range. She has extensive background in sales and management and at Viking she planned and executed events at the national and local level.
"I know all of the parts that go into a successful event," she said.
Jim Donahue comes to the job from a position as national sales manager for Toshiba as well as working in international startup companies.
PLANNING FOR A CHANGE
"We had been planning for a change. The kids were in college and our jobs were changing. We never intended to be in New Jersey forever. The property has been in Jim's heart since he first saw it, and he's stayed there more than 100 times and brought corporate events there. We've been together for 15 years and it has always been a part of our lives," Kim Donahue said.
So the Donahues asked themselves several questions: Could they move from an urban to a rural community? Could they do the job of becoming innkeepers and event coordinators? Could they make a living doing it and could they work out the finances? The answer to all three was yes.
"We want everyone to know that we feel like we are the stewards of this property and will care for it for the next generation. It's about taking this facility that is so important to the community and continuing to polish it so that it is ready for the next generation," Kim Donahue said.
A GOOD NEIGHBOR
The sense of community was key to the Donahues' decision. Kim Donahue had the opportunity to be working here anonymously in the community since early in the year and she said that the friendliness of how she has been treated makes them very thrilled to be moving here.
"One of the things we're going to love the most is to be a good neighbor. We wanted to be part of a community to give back and to take advantage of what the community has to offer," Kim Donahue said.
For now Kim Donahue is focused on learning the ropes, filling the shoes of former innkeeper Janice Hurley and gleaning 28 years of wisdom from AnneMarie DeFreest.
"It's an unusual change of hands and it doesn't feel fair to call it a change of hands. AnneMarie is invested in us succeeding and will remain on board. We are excited about her getting to fulfill her other goals without having to worry about the mundane," Kim Donahue said.
THE NEXT CHALLENGES
As for DeFreest, she's ready for the next challenges.
"I've loved being able to develop this place and have no regrets about owning it, but it's time for me to focus on other things. I've taken my responsibility of owning the barn very seriously, understanding that there are very few places in The Valley with that capacity that are open year round. Knowing that you own one of the largest spaces for things that the community is going to need is a serious responsibility," DeFreest said.
"Kim's first event is going to be the Green Mountain Valley School prom. We've hosted the Harwood and U-32 proms. That is an important component of what we do. I had two other full price offers that would have changed that so that this wasn't the place that would host proms or a memorial or a destination wedding or Festival of the Arts events," she said.
She will be sticking around to watch over things for the Donahues but will also begin focusing on other projects. While the Donahues are going to handle the inn and barn, DeFreest will retain 200-plus acres that surround the 45-acre inn/barn parcel.
On that land she is considering developing some cottages on the north side that would accommodate families and pets and expand the lodging that the inn can offer so that all members of a small wedding (50 guests) could be accommodated on site.
"We won't fill beds like the 100- to 200-guest weddings, but we will continue to get people into the shops and gassing up their cars," DeFreest said.
She may also consider a cottage community of workforce housing on the other side of the street, but first she's going to get the Donahues ready to succeed.
On a larger concept when I'm not involved in the day-to-day operations of the inn, I'll be freed up to look at larger picture of what we're doing, what we're doing well and what we should be doing next," DeFreest said.
DeFreest's parents, Doreen and Jack Simko, bought the property in 1986 and extensively renovated the inn and then saved the barn from collapse. The inn opened to the public in 1987 with six rooms.