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WALLA WALLA — The Colonial Motel has a new manager, but it’s still family-owned and operated.

Richard and Carolyn Tuttle have owned the motel since 1973. One of their sons, John Tuttle, has begun running day-to-day operations as manager. Their other son, Rick Tuttle, continues to work with marketing and maintenance.

John has a diverse career background. He earned a degree in English literature from the University of Puget Sound, then went to Japan to teach English. He chose Japan because he loves creating pottery and he was told Japan was the best place in the world to learn pottery making.

He later started a pottery business. He also ran his own business as a massage therapist in Leavenworth. His wife, Sally, teaches cello at Whitman College.

Rick and John grew up working at the motel.

“We usually worked until 10 in the morning. In the summer it’s already 90 degrees — just chomping at the bit to jump in the pool,” John said. Rick remembers working the old-style switchboard with the cords.

Operating the motel has been a journey and fulfilling experience for the family.

“It worked for us,” Carolyn said. “We have a good record.”

In the beginning, his parents were seeking to buy a small business, said Rick.

“We had a lovely home in Bellevue,” said Carolyn.

She was a substitute teacher there, while her husband worked for Xerox Corporation.

“They looked at a garbage company in Twisp, looked in Lewiston and looked at a dry cleaners, and then they found this property,” said Rick.

“My goal, and my husband’s too, was for me to be at home with the boys. I was a teacher,” Carolyn said. This afforded me the opportunity to be home with the boys while they were growing up. And I really didn’t want to drive a garbage truck.”

“He was tired of corporate life and he found this. It was something we could afford” — which means the motel, built in 1948, was kind of a fixer-upper, she said.

Photo by Michael Lopez

The garden area, where a pool was formerly located.

The facility is certainly fixed up now. It’s a large motel, all on one level, with easy access to the office. It originally had a large pool but they filled it in.

“Because of regulations, made it not feasible so we made it into the garden,” Carolyn said.

Photo by Michael Lopez

The entryway and main office.

They were concerned about losing the family clientele, but they gained more guests in the long run and didn’t have the liability of a pool. And the garden actually is a benefit because there’s a longer season to enjoy a garden than a pool, said John.

Carolyn said she’s enjoyed meeting and getting to know the guests.

Photo by Michael Lopez

The exterior and parking areas of some of the rooms.

“The people we meet are a cross section of society. It’s not confining and it’s not monotonous. It’s very enriching,” she said.

She has taken people to the hospital, gotten help for others, met people visiting town for conferences, people dropping their children off for college, hot air balloon enthusiasts, tourists from Canada and elsewhere. She’s met very happy people as well as those that are struggling.

“You can help people,” she said. “Being a family-operated, on-premise, hands-on operation has its advantages.”

Many of the guests are working on jobs locally. Working people need a good night’s sleep, so the motel has policies that maintain peace and quiet.

One of the few remaining mom-and-pop operations in town, the property has a vintage flavor to it. John sees a marketing opportunity in its nostalgic nature, evoking memories of the past.

“People have said, ‘Wow, how retro. That’s kind of cool,’” he said.

There are places in the market for these businesses and for the huge hospitality corporations. Smaller operations’ distinctive touches can help them maintain competitiveness.

“We don’t want (the rooms) all the same. People come in and ask, ‘Can I have the room with the knotty pine?’ We saved as much of it as we could. We liked the open space. We’re not a downtown motel,” Carolyn said.

Running a fixer-up property has had its challenges.

“The most challenging thing has probably been the money, not overexpanding yourself,” Carolyn said. “The business runs day to day and you can’t anticipate income from year to year. Everything affects us. We know what needs to be done and we want to do it, but it takes patience.”

With many improvement projects you just have to hold yourself back, said Rick.

“But it’s a matter of which ideas will bring people in,” said John.

Having an emergency maintenance fund is essential. Carolyn said.

“You don’t know what’s going to break down. You just hope the lawn mower and the wash machine are good for a number of years,” she said.

The property has changed with the times, but it’s kept its core strength as a family-owned and operated business.

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.