After nearly 30 years in the casino industry, Don Wells was thinking last April about retirement. His dream was to buy a house on a lake where he and his wife, Julie, could relax.
“My dream was to have a house on a lake somewhere, with our own dock and a small boat,” Wells said.
The couple is now living that dream, having bought Harts Lake Resort and Deli.
“It’s more than we originally thought we would do, with the restaurant, a five-bedroom house, the campers and all,” he said.
Wells knows the lake well. He remembers fishing there with his father and uncles, memories going back to 1959.
Never, however, did he think he would end up owning the place.
Wells said he started talking with the previous owners, Carol and Charlie Parsons, back in April. The couple had owned the small resort for 12 years before selling it in 2011. They took back the operation a year ago when the owners defaulted on the deal.
That led to Wells’ first discussions with Carol Parsons in April.
“We talked back and forth. I finally gave her a bottom-line figure for me, and she and Charlie said, ‘OK’ ,” Wells said.
Wells and his wife took over the operation May 31. Since then, they’ve been joined by their son Brent, and they have been busy sprucing up the buildings, trimming trees and cutting grass that was 6 feet high in places.
“I’ve got people who have been coming here for five years saying it’s the first time they can see the lake,” Wells said. “It was a busy few months. Now we’ve got it trimmed up and looking good.”
After just six weeks, business is off to a good start: Wells has filled all the available rentals on the property.
It means making a one-hour commute from north Tacoma each day. But that’s OK with Wells because all the rental income covers his mortgage payment.
Julie Wells works part time at the Tacoma Lutheran Home, so she spends three days helping at the resort.
“I can’t wait to retire and come out here full time,” said the 54-year-old. “It’s a homey atmosphere. Everybody’s friendly. We all sit around and chit chat. It’s just so peaceful. I can’t wait for the sunset each night.”
With the immediate cleanup complete, the 58-year-old Wells can concentrate on increasing the number of visitors.
“I want to bring it back to what it was – lots of campers, lots of kids,” he said. “This used to be a hot spot for families.”
With that goal in mind, Wells said he is committed to keeping the resort open seven days a week, even through the winter.
He’s also expanded the restaurant’s menu, bought two paddle boats to rent, and is updating some of the fishing gear that’s on sale.
“There’s lot of new faces. People are hearing it’s open and are coming down to check it out,” said Julie Wells.
Fishermen and campers are coming from nearby towns of McKenna and Roy, places such as Eatonville, Graham, Olympia and Tacoma, and making the drive from Seattle and Marysville.
Even as he takes care of the day-to-day business, Wells has plans for the future. They include installing several lakeside cabins, extending the fishing dock and updating the small restaurant.
Most important, Wells wants people coming to the lake to have fun. He’s happy to share fishing tips for landing the catfish that make the lake popular. As incentive to anglers, an old photo on the wall of the deli shows a fisherman holding a 20.4-pound catfish. The lake also has trout, bass and crappie.
Wells tries to share a laugh with every customer who walks through the door. He’ll gladly flip a burger when son Brent – the head cook – is not available.
“If someone drove up and offered me double what I paid for the place, I’d have to say no,” Wells said. “I’m having too much fun. People ask me how I’m doing, and I say, ‘I’m living the dream.’ ”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640