(1951 - )
A Hoosier by birth and a Coloradoan by choice, Gail Riley has been a fixture in Evergreen since 1979 when she and her husband, Tom Statzell, purchased a motel in lower downtown.
The 16-unit motel, tucked behind an outcropping of rocks where Main Street bends with Bear Creek, was known as Highland Haven Motel. With the addition of a horseshoe pit a year later, they renamed it Highland Haven Resort Motel. At the time 16 cabins, suites and cottages comprised the operation.
There were three duplexes dating back to the 1930s when Evergreen attracted summer tourists from near and far, a lodge built in 1961, and a log cabin built in the late 1800s.
As the date of the log house might suggest, there’s a bit of history behind the site. It was built in 1886 as a summer cabin for John L. Dailey, who co-founded Denver's first newspaper – the Rocky Mountain News –in 1859, and is considered by historians to be the oldest cabin still standing in Bear Creek Canyon. It’s been restored to expose the hand-hewn logs and beams, taking on a rustic elegance and becoming the crown jewel of the inn. The Dailey Cabin, as it’s known, serves as a breakfast room on a daily basis and is marketed for small meetings, weddings and special celebrations.
In 1961 the main lodge was constructed in order to house teachers who’d been recruited from neighboring states to fill a shortage in the education system. The lodge was comprised of a number of small apartments, which are now referred to as “junior suites.”
While visiting friends in Evergreen, Gail and Tom had stayed in the Evergreen Suite and fell in love with the setting – the huge rock outcroppings, the creek and the blue sky they seldom saw in Indiana or in San Francisco where they’d been living. When making the decision to start a family, they knew San Francisco was not the place; so they partnered with another couple (Phil Krause and Mary Jo Witecki) in 1979 to purchase the motel that had charmed them earlier. At the time, Gail and Tom were "faux hippies" from Indiana who brought with them Midwest values and sensibilities.
In the late '70s, business was seasonal. The women ran the day-to-day operations, earning no pay for the first eight years, while the men held other full-time jobs. Gail and Tom’s new nest produced two children – Roxy and Jaxon in 1980 and 1985, respectively.
In 1987 Tom and Gail bought out their partners and began investing in what has become a constant remodeling project. “Some [units] have been remodeled from the sub-floor up three times,” Gail explained, saying that Tom, an accomplished woodworker with a talent for design and renovation, has been responsible for all the remodeling. “It’s the stuff we love. We went for quality over quantity.” Gail ensured that nice linens always adorned the beds, and Tom made certain that electronics kept up with the times.
With a name change in 1991, Highland Haven Creekside Inn evolved into a year-round business and now caters to an upscale crowd, including a smattering of celebrities. In the early 1990s, they started serving a full breakfast, crediting Amy Kenney with developing the idea and having the skills and energy to pull it off while serving as live-in manager with two small children. Stratas and elegant breakfast foods added to the reputation for the inn to be more than just a nice place to stay.
Gail has always enjoyed mentoring young employees, many of whom became “part of family” for decades after that. “They blossom in confidence and skills,” Gail bubbled with pride. “The inn set the tone for a joyful learning experience, and hospitality skills were born.”
It was during the 1980s that the bed-and-breakfast concept developed roots in the US, but the 16-unit establishment didn’t quite fit the mold, as most B&Bs were usually 10 or fewer rooms within a person’s home. The word “inn” seemed to fit better than other terms, accommodating their variety of accommodations and number of buildings.
In 2000 the living quarters were converted into offices and another rental unit – the Fireside Loft, a large suite suitable for corporate gatherings or even small family vacations. The inn attracts considerable corporate business with its proximity to Denver and the feel of being a world away.
With her Martha Stewart flair and upbringing with chickens back in Indiana, Gail ordered baby chicks while Tom built a chicken coop. Amy, the manager, accepted delivery and raised them in her basement for the first few weeks. Gail always enjoyed taking the visiting children over to collect the warm eggs. “It was a great 4-H kind of experience,” Gail laughed, telling of the foxes and dogs that got into the chicken coop over the years.
In 2011, an 850-square-foot, architect-designed treehouse replaced the chicken coop as the next important step in their business venture. “We had already notched out the other romance amenities,” the vibrant innkeeper noted, “and we wanted to do something magical.” The three-story treehouse, built during a recession, provides the feel of luxury and elegance for very special occasions for those who can afford the $485-$560/night rate. It projects the Rocky Mountain fairytale quality Gail and Tom were seeking to achieve.
"We've always tried to stay with or ahead of the trends," Gail adds. With a degrees in fine art and graphic design, Gail's artistry is apparent throughout the establishment. Tom is the "aesthete" with his own creativity evident in each and every room, even having built some of the furniture. "He builds it, and I run it."
The inn has earned numerous accolades and credits from travel publications and businesses that rate lodging, including being named among the Top 10 Most Romantic Inns of the Year in 2009, “Best Mountain Bed & Breakfast,” and one of the Top 10 Most Romantic Cottages in the Country by Sunset Magazine. Locally, Highland Haven was named Business of the Year by the Evergreen Area Chamber of Commerce in 1996 and again in 2008.
Gail has authored two books – Colorado Cravings, a lifestyle book turned into a cookbook, reflective of the food served at Highland Haven; and Colorado Romance (co-authored with Amy Kenney), inspired by heart-warming and heart-breaking entries in the journals in the rooms at the inn. “It’s all about love and relationships,” Gail explained, “with ideas to keep romance alive.”
“We believe in giving back to the community,” Gail said with pride. She has been instrumental in cultivating the economic and aesthetic aspects of Evergreen; a member of the Evergreen Chamber for 35 years; and instrumental in the creation of the popular Sculpture Walk, a project of Art for the Mountain Community. The inn typically sponsors sports teams at local schools and is supportive of numerous nonprofit endeavors.
Gail and Tom were involved when Leadership Evergreen was created in the mid 1990s, helping to coordinate one of the full-day modules and playing host to the inaugural class the first session. Gail and Tom turned over the entire inn – at no cost – for the weekend retreat that kicked off the year-long program. “We told participants to pack their bags for an overnight but did not tell them where they’d be staying, other than it would be within 25 miles of Evergreen,” co-founder Linda Kirkpatrick explained. “Most of the class did not know Highland Haven existed, and only one or two had ever been there before. It's such a hidden gem.” Highland Haven has been a mainstay in the program ever since.
Gail has always wanted Evergreen to “step up” to reach its potential, and she’s done much more than just urge the powers that be. She’s there working to make it happen, and she’s earned a reputation for being Evergreen’s most enthusiastic cheerleader. Her role as innkeeper has given her many opportunities to be an ambassador for Evergreen, as well as a referral agent for where visitors should dine, shop, hike, and do business.
Her latest endeavor in community improvement is being measured through the Downtown Evergreen Economic District (DEED) and its offshoot, the Evergreen Legacy Fund (ELF). Gail was instrumental in implementing the 1% voluntary contribution attached to each sale at member businesses to make the kinds of improvements a city might make – sidewalks and such. More than $85,000 has been collected in less than two years for those purposes, 15 cents on a $15 pizza or $15 on a $1,500 lodging bill. Merchants can opt in, and patrons can opt out. “I don’t recall anyone ever objecting when checking out at Highland Haven,” she said.
Being an unincorporated part of Jefferson County, Evergreen’s lack of a local governing body means that residents and business people like Gail must rise to the occasion whenever there’s a need. She’s there as a leader, often setting the bar for others to follow.
Under their 35 years of ownership, the inn has only been closed on one occasion – a five-day stretch during the flood of 2013 – while Gail and Tom were in California. Daughter Roxy and her husband, Blake, who are now managing the operation, were in charge; they are expected to eventually take over the inn.
Source: Interview with Gail Riley