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Owners of Gustavus Inn sell to Hoonah Lingít tribe

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The owners of the Gustavus Inn sold their inn after a run of 41 years.

It’s been on sale for a couple of years, but the Hoonah Indian Association recently bought the property, giving the Hoonah Lingít a foothold in their homelands.

Gustavus is a gateway to visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, so the community gets a lot of tourists in the summertime. And one of the few places they can stay while visiting the park is Gustavus Inn.

The Lesh family has owned the Gustavus Inn since 1965 when Jack and Sally Lesh bought it. Their son David Lesh and his wife JoAnn took it over in 1980. 

And a lot has changed since then — at first, there wasn’t any power, no roads or phone service in Gustavus. JoAnne Lesh said it wasn’t easy to run the business back then. 

“Having a small business in a town like that is about being nimble and adaptable. You anticipate and you plan ahead and then you try and make it work when things happen,” Lesh said.

They’re going to miss the guests the most, but Lesh said they are looking forward to having their first summer off in 40 years. 

And she’s glad that the Hoonah Indian Association is taking the place over.

“We’re excited about the tribe having a place to call home in their homelands,” Lesh said.

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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (Photo by: Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Robert Starbard is the tribe’s tribal administrator and chief executive office. He said that’s the tribe’s main reason for buying the inn — for the Hoonah Lingít to have a place in their homelands.

“We’ve never actually had a claim for a sustained physical presence there since the little ice age. And this is part of correcting that,” Starbard said.

The Hoonah Indian Association started looking at buying the inn back in 2019. The pandemic put discussions on hold. In late spring this year, the tribe started negotiations again and eventually bought the property. 

Starbard said the inn will be different from when the Lesh’s ran it. They plan to focus more on cultural tourism.

“A place where the interpreters can bring clients to experience the richness of the Lingít culture outside of the confines of the park,” he said.

And they want to expand the operation. The building will give the tribe the infrastructure it needs for other projects in the area, like sustaining the tribe’s clan house, holding culture camps and providing job opportunities for tribal citizens. 

Starbard said the tribe wants its citizens to be able to take jobs at the National Park Service and work in Glacier Bay in the summer.

“We’re hoping to develop some small housing on the property that will give the ability for our tribal citizens to take jobs with the park to be able to get back and forth to and from Hoonah,” he said.

Starbard said one of the hardest parts of being in Gustavus is the isolation, which is why the tribe wants to create a daily ferry service from Hoonah to Gustavus, so citizens won’t be so isolated from their homes.

The tribe is aiming to have its Gustavus operation ready by the 2023 season, but that date is in flux and will depend on when they can get the ferry service running and when they get the staff they need.

“And because of the unknowns of this upcoming season with COVID, still COVID variants still very much wandering around the countryside, the crystal balls that we’re all operating with are very opaque,” Starbard said.

Despite the uncertainty on the timing, Starbard said that when the inn does reopen, it will be an economic engine for the tribe.