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Wednesday, November 13, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Change or perish: Hill’s Resort at Priest Lake transitions to next generation

By Fred Willenbrock The Spokesman-Review

PRIEST LAKE, IDAHO – A blanket of dense evergreen trees, distant laughter, grill smoke and lapping waves embraces people when they first arrive at Hill’s Resort. For over 70 years, people have come for a lake experience carefully orchestrated by three generations of one family.

With the three children of the founders reaching retirement age, it was a possibility that this iconic North Idaho resort would become just a chapter in history. To prevent that, the family decided to begin a formal transition plan that will have a new generation taking charge over the next few years.

The Hill family has created a classic lake resort with roots in the 1950s, when people traveled long distances each summer to escape city life. But Hill’s also kept up with changing vacationer interests by investing in updated lodging, a fine-dining restaurant, golf course and docks.

“Our family goal, stated at all our meetings, has been to see Hill’s Resort stay in the family,” said Craig Hill. The 63-year-old general manager is the son of resort founders George and Lois Hill. He and his wife, Missy, live next door to the lodge; she manages the front desk.

He took over when his father’s cancer diagnosis forced the issue. His aim, he said, is to make the transition to the next generation before it’s necessary.

Their daughter, Whitney Hutchins, 28, is being trained by his sister Teri Hill, 64, as the special events coordinator. Teri Hill was the first to announce retirement, which will begin in February.

“I’m training to be Teri,” Hutchins said with a smile.

Whitney’s brother, Jake Hill, 26, is the executive assistant to the president and CEO of Washington Trust Bank in Spokane. Like all the family, he has performed all jobs at the resort as well as held jobs outside the family business. He goes to the resort most weekends to help with bookkeeping and learn about his father’s responsibilities.

Jake Hill says he plans to return to the resort full time in a few years.

The third brother, Scott, 58, is in charge of the award-winning restaurant. His wife, Cheri, also works there.

Scott Hill left the resort where he grew up to study documentary filmmaking in college. He was drawn back to the business after working at a few restaurants to gain experience. His dad said he wouldn’t hire him without experience, Scott said.

Their two boys are 8 and 10 years old and may someday round out the new generation of Hill’s management team. But in the tradition of his grandparents and parents, nobody is being forced, Scott Hill said.

Hill’s history

In the 1930s, George Hill was introduced to lake life while staying at his grandparents’ summer cabin on the east side of Priest, Teri Hill said.

He went to the University of Washington to study business before joining the U.S. Navy Air Corps and serving in World War II. Instead of joining his father in his Spokane shoe store, he headed back to the love of his life – Priest Lake.

In 1946, he bought the Farris Resort – a fishing camp open only in July and August; seven cabins without water, electricity or sewer. The cabins had oil stoves and the camp used a generator for lights. They would blow a horn when it was time for the generator to be turned off for the night.

Making a living year-round was a challenge then as it is today.

George Hill worked on his resort in the summer and left in the winter to work in the restaurant and business sides of Idaho’s famous Sun Valley Resort. He also skied.

In 1954, he married a Spokane woman, Lois Montecucco, who attended Washington State University.

Over the next decade, he would build two cabins a year to add to the original seven.

The couple started living year-round at the resort and had two children, Craig and Teri.

George Hill bought the other fishing resort on the bay, Timms Resort, in 1961, the year Scott Hill was born.

They moved the Timms’ Resort bar and its liquor license down to where Hill’s lodge was. They basically joined the Farris building to Timm’s with a restaurant. These buildings still make up the resort lodge today.

Craig Hill said his dad would cook in the restaurant and then go over and help the bartender until closing. His mom would work the front desk.

The family lived above the restaurant. Teri Hill remembers calling down to her parents when they had a band to complain about the noise – and her dad telling her that is was the business and to basically live with it.

Scott Hill remembers his father’s passion for finding new recipes and going into restaurant kitchens to ask the chef about one he liked. George brought margarita shrimp, baby back ribs and hot spinach salad among other recipes to Priest Lake. They also incorporated his mother’s Italian family recipes.

They all learned to clean cabins and work every job, Teri Hill said. They started working there when they were 16.

Hutchins and her aunt said they both lived in employee housing. It was more fun to be with friends and get out of their parents’ nearby homes, Teri Hill said.

The resort used to have bunkhouses but now have seven employee cabins. The staff comes from all over country with many returning each year. The core staff comes from the area.

“My very best friends were people I lived in employee housing with,” Hutchins said.

When asked if she ever thought she would be coming back to live and work, Hutchins said no. “Every year I would say goodbye, this is my last summer,” she said.

All the Hills remember the changing group of friends each week in the summer as the guests came and went, the winter vacations to Mexico and the great family meals together.

Teri Hill said their mother worked the front desk until their dad got sick.

They spent their remaining time together at the lake doing things they enjoyed, she said. They would get out on the lake and have picnics with friends and fly-fish.

“Dad loved to fly-fish,” she said.

Traditions

“It’s a lifestyle you buy into,” Craig Hill said. “I did tell my children to go out in the world and do something else first before deciding and they have. … That’s what my father told all of us, and we did that before returning.”

Hutchins said she will eventually gain a share of the ownership of the resort. But she never aspired to this while growing up in the house next to the lodge.

She worked at the resort in the summers, but said she always told her parents at the end of the summer that this was her last summer. Then spring would come and she would call and ask if they had a job for her.

“Nothing is better than to walk through the building and have people say I knew your parents when you were little,” Teri Hill said.

“That lady over there just said she has a picture of me when I was one-year-old down on our beach,’’ Teri Hill said, pointing across the knotty-wood paneled restaurant with its sweeping view of the lake and forest.

The entire family made annual treks to Mexico to live on the beach, she said. Her dad picked up some recipes and the idea of barbecuing with mesquite charcoal on one vacation. Her dad had a special way of cooking steaks that is still used today.

Scott Hill said they still use some of his dad’s and grandparents’ recipes. The idea of using local morel and other mushrooms, huckleberries and smoked meats started with him.

Craig Hill also said they believe having family members with a knowledge of the history and philosophy is essential to the success and the uniqueness.

“You know your guests by name, it makes a difference,” Craig Hill said. They strive to keep this close relationship with guests. “We are lifelong friends with many of our guests. I played with some of the guests when they were kids just like my kids became friends with their kids.”

Transition and change

Craig Hill said when he travels he notices that there aren’t as many small family resorts. Owners aged and sold out while expenses increased and competition for vacation dollars skyrocketed. But he believes transition planning and investing in the resort will keep theirs successful.

They could have sold to a large resort chain, Craig Hill said. They would have invested in the property but it wouldn’t be the same.

The Hills put money back in the resort and continue efforts to make improvements and additions their guests want, Craig Hill said. They are just cautious about them, not wanting to change the atmosphere that many expect.

Jake Hill agreed with his father when he said: “We are slowly making changes so we don’t make a mistake and ruin the uniqueness – it’s not touristy.”

They now have 52 modern cabins that accommodate up to 400 guests on the 19 acres leased from the U.S. Forest Service. The lodge has been expanded with a large deck and awarding-winning restaurant. A new dock was built recently.

George Hill had made a master plan for development of the resort that was approved by the forest service. They haven’t grown into yet, Teri Hill said. Maybe it’s not the way to improve by adding more people – only so much room on beach, she said.

Everything they do must go through a permitting process with the Forest Service or state officials, which can take time. Craig Hill handles that part of the business.

Lake life challenges

Craig Hill has been an advocate for many lake improvement projects and protection plans for decades. He’s working on a plan to save the waterway from the lower to upper lakes called the thorofare. In the past, his volunteer work had involved lake levels and fisheries.

They are sold out for most months in the summer, but winter business is still slow. Teri Hill, who has worked on improving that like her parents before her, said that might always be the case.

She is active with the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce and they are always promoting events in the winter to draw more people.

Lodging is available year-round. The restaurant is open daily from mid-May through October. It’s only open weekends for the other months and closed March and April. They offer 50% off lodging during those two months and it is getting more popular, Teri Hill said.

Priest Lake Golf Course is part of resort. The golf course also has a restaurant that Teri Hill said is getting busier.

Whitney Hutchins graduated from Boise State University with a bachelor of arts degree focusing on communications and conflict resolution.

“I use that a lot around here,” she said. They have 120 employees with 40 working year-round.

“My husband, Taylor, and I decided this was the place we wanted to live,” Whitney Hutchins said. He is the manager of the 18-hole, par 72 championship course. Craig Hill said the manager’s knowledge has improved the course.

George Hill built the first nine holes with some friends when he realized guests wanted to golf. It was located on a ranch that he purchased. Later a developer helped build the next 9 holes and some homes along it.

When asked about the future of Priest Lake businesses, Whitney Hutchins said: “There is an ebb and flow of businesses opening and closing here. This year a ton of new businesses opened, which is exciting.”

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