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Fond memories of a beloved Ashland wedding barn, event center and restaurant run long in Chequamegon Bay residents, and the couple who bought the venue this spring hope people will visit their establishment to make more.
Brenda Halter and Al Williamson, having moved into Michelle Rudeen's farmhouse from Duluth, are gradually making their mark on the former Freehands Farm while vowing to follow in Rudeen's footprints by focusing on sustainability and local foods.
So far, Halter has termed the voyage interesting.
Most recently a U.S. Forest Service supervisor of Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters, Halter knows the magic of memories. Many times in her former job, people told her stories of their time in the Boundary Waters, such as when they met their spouse or tripped over an unexpected adventure.
"Here, everybody has a Freehands story," Halter said, from listening to live music on the patio, enjoying "go-to Friday date" nights or witnessing nuptials beneath the lighted rafters.
Rudeen made a name for herself and Freehands Farm over the course of 15 years, but last year she decided it was time to find a new outlet for her creativity, and now with teenagers to raise, she wanted to simplify her life.
Enter husband-and-wife duo Halter, 59, and Williamson, 67. They closed on the property at the end of April, intending to carry on many Freehands Farm traditions while introducing a few new ideas of their own.
The barn will continue to host weddings and other special occasions, Halter said. But the couple has decided against reopening Freehands Farm's former restaurant, a famous farm-to-table mainstay featuring local produce.
Fortunately dining on the barn patio is not necessarily a thing of the past. Local residents made clear their love of the eatery and dining experiences, and Halter has listened.
So when Halter's son, chef Max Nelson of Salt Lake City, visits to cook for this summer's wedding events, he'll pop up a pop-up restaurant at Shaggy Dog Farm on Aug. 15 for the public to get their first taste of Halter and Williamson hospitality.
In the meantime this summer, Halter intends to make contacts with local food producers and culinary talent so she can expand the number of pop-up eatery occasions next summer.
The Teddy factor
While Halter and Williamson intend to follow the same core sustainability and local-foods ethics Rudeen embraced, they also will make their own imprint on the Summit Road farm south of Ashland.
Renaming the venue for their big, beloved — and boisterous — dog Teddy, a cross between an old English sheep dog and poodle with shaggy, black-and-white hair, was but the first.
Teddy embodies the friendly, whimsical air the couple seeks for Shaggy Dog Farm.
"He lives in a world where everybody should love him as much as he loves them," Halter laughed. "And he loves them!"
Before the first bride marches down the aisle in August, the couple also will have extended the barn's wood flooring. Halter, who is now taking inventory, said she may hold a rummage sale featuring the restaurant's chinaware and donate the proceeds to the food pantry.
She also plans to draw on the talents of another son, Mike Nelson, who is a stonemason. She wants him to build an outdoor fireplace for making pizza and bread. Perhaps they will invite people to bring in their bread dough on certain evenings to host a community bread-baking event, she said.
The couple has come a long way since their retirements from the U.S. Forest Service a few years ago.
After working in many cities because of their jobs, they began traveling the states, Canada and Mexico, searching for a new place to call home. Much to their surprise they found it in Ashland, just an hour's drive away from their last billeting in Duluth.
Halter and Williamson first saw Freehands Farm in the freezing cold, blanketed under feet of snow. They had seen many great places during their travels, but "nothing really just hit us until we came to this place," Halter said.
On the drive back to Duluth they decided it would become their home. Now they are remodeling the house, mulling business plans and dreaming of possibilities.
"It really is true, that there's too many good ideas, not too few," Halter said.
The couple already is accepting engagements for 2020 on their website, shaggydogfarm.com, and may take one or two for later this summer.
But no more pop-up restaurant are definitively planned for this year, although the couple wants to host a harvest dinner in September — exact date to be determined.
More information, such as the menu of the Aug. 15 pop-up eatery and other dinner dates, can be found at facebook.com/shaggydogfarm.
The owner of a downtown hotel again is asking the city if he can pave an Ashland lot to provide more parking for patrons.
Mark Gutteter owns Ashland's Cobblestone Inn and the adjacent Deepwater Grille and Alley restaurant, which share a 72-space parking lot. But Gutteter says that's not enough, and he wants to level the building across the street from the hotel at 900 Main St. W., which he owns, to free up more space.
"We've got 51 hotel rooms, plus employees, who will use the majority of those spots," he said of the 72-slot lot behind the hotel. "In the winter time you've got to pile up snow on a corner of the parking lot and that leaves the Deepwater Grille with very few remaining spots. We will routinely have 200 people at the same time between the Deepwater and the Alley. It doesn't work."
Gutteter needs permission
from the city — which was to consider his request Tuesday night — to level the building that now houses the Main Street Insurance Agency and three apartments because the property is not zoned for parking. The last time he made such a request, it didn't end the way he wanted.
In January of 2018, Gutteter proposed paving an empty lot at 717 Main St. W. about a block from the restaurants and hotel, but City Council members found that plan didn't "conform to the goals and community values" identified in the community plan.
"The plan identifies that Ashland's downtown area has an abundance of parking and the challenge for downtown Ashland is not parking or accessibility but rather to create a reason to be there both day and night," the report said.
But a city Planning Department report on Gutteter's new proposal says the lot he now wants to pave is outside the city's core area, would not hinder development and would "provide overall benefits by addressing the perceived parking shortage in this area."
The report also called the insurance building "blighted" and said its removal would promote the comprehensive plan to improve downtown building stock.
Gutteter said the lot also would ease interloper parking at the Wallie Motors building across Main Street from his operations. Its lot serves Ashland Liquor and the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Star Liquor Store co-owner Nick Patel said the parking situation at his lot has greatly improved since the hotel's lot was completed. The new lot would be far better for the hotel and restaurant than the lot proposed a year ago, he said.
"Nobody is going to park a block away and walk over," he said.
Patel said his only concern with the proposal is the loss of the three apartments and the insurance business, which he views as more important to downtown life than a parking lot.
Former Ashland Historical Society board member Jan Cameron, an advocate for the preservation of historical buildings, said the insurance building has "no historic value that I know of."
Cameron said old buildings likely will continue to be town down as Ashland remakes itself, but like Patel she doesn't like the idea of losing downtown apartments.
And Joe Brezinski, owner of the insurance company, is less than thrilled about the idea, too. Brezinski said Monday he was surprised to hear of the proposal only seven months after he moved in as Gutteter's tenant.
"If it means another move, that would definitely be not good," he said. "It cost a lot of money just to change our address. You have to notify all your business partners and you have to notify your customers. It's not something you want to do every other year."
Gutteter said he would consider leaving the building in place and even fixing it up if the city would revisit the proposed parking lot at 717 Main St. W. He's not eager to lose downtown housing and business, either.
"As we look at the possibility of not developing an empty piece of land, and actually removing an existing building, it seems counter-intuitive," he said.
Washburn City Council members are debating giving residents a chance to voice their wishes about a contentious downtown property's future at a series of community forums.
Attempts to determine the destiny of the prime Omaha Street real estate spot between Second Avenue West and Central Avenue haven't run smoothly over recent months and years as many residents have promoted competing visions for the lot sporting a Lake Superior view.
With so many ideas and developments under consideration, council members on Monday considered hosting forums for residents to share their thoughts. The move failed for the time being, but likely will return when details of the forums are worked out.
A look back at the property's history shows how the city recently rejected a plan to build apartments on the land. Before that, a Twin Cities man wanted to transform the green space into a theater experience catering to summertime tourists.
As the city wrangles with the plot's future, that plan might be making a comeback.
John Weinel is owner of StageNorth, a 142-seat theater overlooking the Omaha Street property. The Twin-Cities-Area resident bought the 8 1/2-acre lot from the city in 2012 with plans centered around building an ancient-Greece-inspired amphitheater for summer stock performances of Shakespeare.
He hoped that ticket sales to tourists would put StageNorth's revenue in the black for the first time, and he plunged his time and energy into developing the lot.
Weinel said he sank about $50,000 into hauling out buried garbage and the remains of former buildings, removing trees and then grading and reseeding the land.
He knew he was working on a deadline.
The $150,000 purchase agreement with Washburn stipulated that he have at least one structure in place within 18 months. As he hadn't determined exactly where the amphitheater would sit and therefore couldn't erect the planned-for scene shop to satisfy the
terms of the deal, he asked the city if he could pave a diagonal parking lot along the street and call it good for the time being.
Believing he had a firm "handshake deal" with the city giving him more time, Weinel put off development, but as soon as the 18-month deadline passed, the city informed Weinel it was exercising its option to buy back the property, or rather "seize" it, as Weinel put it.
Weinel appealed to the council at its Aug. 18, 2014, meeting to no avail.
Weinel said Councilwoman Mary McGrath led the charge to buy back the property. According to him, McGrath said the property has too many bugs and sees too much rain for an amphitheater.
When contacted by the Daily Press for comment, McGrath said she would have to review her notes as to what was said, but she did say Weinel's "pie in the sky" plans kept changing and it had been "now or never" for the city to take back the property to ensure development plans best suited the city.
Why not take back the land and move toward a development that better reflected the comprehensive plan and increase the city's tax base, she asked.
Weinel fought the city for a while, but he eventually signed over the deed and received a check for $143,000 — the original purchase price less property taxes owed on the land while he battled. He estimates he lost between $60,000 and $65,000 on development plans and work on the lot.
That left the land sitting vacant for the past five years as residents and officials tossed around ideas and visions for what it should be and how it best should be used.
Washburn undeniably needs tourist income to raise the fortunes of the Bayfield County burg, but in many eyes it also needs housing — and in particular low-income housing.
Earlier this year Movin' Out, a Madison-based group, presented plans to the City Council for a housing development for a range of incomes. The council also debated carving the property into lots for single-family homes.
The council decided against Movin' Out's proposal — for the time being — and determined that the community needed to be consulted to help develop plans for the property.
Council President Karen Spears-Novachek presented a plan to council members for a three-part series of forums to hammer out recommendations for developing the property that can be implemented within two years.
But the council on Monday decided too many questions, including whether the meetings should address only Omaha Street or the entire community, and who will facilitate the meetings, remained unanswered and decided to hold off.
McGrath said she looks forward to the community forums. The city can't afford to make a mistake on Omaha Street's development.
"It will come back to the table," she said. When that might be is undecided.
Meanwhile, Weinel lives in hope that his plans for an amphitheater and park can be resurrected with the help of Jeff Moberg and Mick Anderson, the men behind the Harbor View Event Center. New plans have been drawn up, and they are on display along with artist renderings at StageNorth.
But Moberg, reached for comment before the meeting, said plans to pursue development were a ways down the road and the city needed to take a look at plans for the community as a whole.
So development proposals are back in limbo to be chewed on further by a community divided until residents can come together on a project most of them can rally around.