Jessica Morsell-Haye

Jessica Morsell-Haye 2018 headshot 2- BigFor over 130 years, the Golden West has stood tall on Redwood Avenue in Fort Bragg. Apartments occupy the top two floors and there’s a retail space at ground level, but the building is most noted for its popular saloon.

Jessica Morsell-Haye and her husband Mikael have a shared nostalgia for that saloon. In the summer of 2000—in the early years of their friendship which eventually blossomed into romance—they often hung out there, surrounded by the massive oak bar and artifacts from the glory days of logging and fishing that adorn redwood walls. They dreamed  how cool it would be to own the place.

“We both loved the gorgeous, unadulterated interior,” Jessica said. “You could feel and see its history when you walked into the room. We also respected the previous owners. It was a point of pride if they tolerated your presence and we felt honored that they welcomed us. Mikael and I both worked in bars over the years and we felt like the Golden West was the ideal combination of beauty and dive bar.”

Fifteen years later, the building went up for sale, giving them a chance to fulfill their dream. There was only one problem—they didn’t have any money.

***

Jessica grew up in a variety of areas along the coast—Mendocino, Albion and Comptche. “I liked Comptche the best. We had no electricity and I loved living off the land. We didn’t have television. My brother and I used our imagination for entertainment.”

She attended Mendocino Community High School and was on the basketball and track teams at Mendocino High. In 1997, she entered UC Santa Cruz and played basketball her first year. She majored in Fine Arts and chose to do her junior year abroad at the Art Academy in Bologna, Italy.

Jessica&MikaelThe following summer, she returned to the coast where became friends with Mikael. “We were together for a year and then broke up for a year. After I graduated from college in 2002, I came back and we got together.”

In 2003, Jessica entered the visual communications program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles. “Mikael and I moved on April Fool’s Day, which made us laugh. Our goal was to make it for a year. We ended up staying for ten.”

That same year, Jessica was hired by Marimar Textiles, to organize and file artwork. Marimar is a company that converts artwork to make it production ready for fabric. Six months later, the head designer quit. “The owner asked if I knew how to use Photoshop. I barely did, but said, ‘Sure!’ She hired me as their in-house artist. I jumped in and worked my tail off until I figured it out.”

During their years in LA, Mikael worked as a bartender, an occupation perfectly suited to his warm, gregarious personality.

Jessica finished her program and went on to have a number of jobs in the fashion industry. She dressed celebrities at Giorgio Armani, and was promoted to stylist at Marimar Textiles, coordinating half of the company’s accounts which included Anne Klein, Michael Kohrs, Quicksilver, and Speedo Girls.

Three years later, she was recruited as a textile designer for BCBG Max Azria, a billion-dollar international clothing company. “It was a pressure cooker. Working all day until three in the morning wasn’t unusual. As the director of textile design, I was getting to put three separate lines down the runway each season, which was thrilling and unheard of.”

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, she escaped widespread layoffs. She continued to work long hours until she gave birth to her son Caspar in 2012. She returned from maternity leave and stayed eight more months. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice time with my son for a company.”

In 2013, they moved to Petaluma. Mikael stayed at home with the baby while Jessica commuted to San Francisco to her job as a fabric designer for the Banana Republic Factory Store. She also did freelance work for the clothing company Tart Collections in Concord. Tart offered her a job in 2014, and she took it.

jessicagoldenwestinsideb&wThis was when she and Mikael learned that the Golden West was for sale. They lamented they had no money to make their youthful dream of owning it come true. They heard that the Hospitality House was looking to purchase the building to use as a homeless shelter, and felt an urgency to save it and preserve its history.

“History gives a place soul. The old materials and aesthetics were made to last. We love that we can see where an old wall was built to section off the bar during prohibition. Stories come alive when you can see the marks they left on their environment.”

With her typical canjessicaoldyellowbldg-do attitude, Jessica went to work figuring out how to make it happen. “A financial advisor helped me put together a business plan that turned into a three-inch thick document. After pushing hard, it was clear that traditional financing wasn’t an option. The building had 30 years of  deferred maintenance. Private investors also turned us down. We made an offer anyway and went into escrow. At the eleventh hour, the sellers agreed to do owner financing and we got it.”

Within the first year, Jessica and Mikael gave the building’s façade a facelift by changing  the crumbling yellow paint to a dark charcoal with red trim and replacing the roof. The bar soon became the go-to spot for young people. “We wanted to make it more inviting without changing its essence. We expanded our liquor offerings and found there’s a desire for more variety and top shelf alcohol.”

jessicagoldenwestnewpaintThe rooms above the saloon were at different times a hotel, boarding house, and brothel. “There are 26 rooms, some of which are used for storage. We have about 16 tenants. When we took over the building I cleaned out a bunch of rooms. It was fascinating—ancient silk curtains, boudoirs, layers of wall paper telling a chronological history.”

Jessica proudly reports that they have not raised the rent on existing tenants. “Once someone is in a home I think it’s critical not to price them out of it.”

For the next three years, Jessica worked for Tart remotely from home, commuting to Concord one day a week. In March 2017, daughter Magnolia was born.

This past spring, they opened the General Store in the building’s retail space. “We wanted an outlet where we could sell things we make as well as items from other artists.” As part of this effort, Jessica and another local designer started The Blue Collective on McPherson Street, offering shared workspace for artists.

In April of this year, Jessica was laid off from Tart, although she continues to do freelance work. “It seems every company in the fashion industry is contracting due to skyrocketing manufacturing costs from China.”

jessica&kidsWhen she was approached with the idea of running for a seat on the city council, it ignited a passion. “The decisions made in the next four years will affect this town for decades. The future of Fort Bragg is critical to me and my family. It’s important that the town’s growth with the mill site and subsequent expansion of infrastructure be done mindfully, in a forward thinking, responsible manner that keeps the soul of our city intact and leverages its natural and historic beauty.

“One of my main strengths is seeing the big picture and finding the points of connection. As I connect the dots, my focus is on actionable steps that usually lead to alternative solutions. This can be leveraged as we try to create more jobs, housing, industry, a healthier hospital, and tackle problems like homelessness. They’re all related and each decision will affect multiple sectors.

“I love how our windy roads give our area a filter and prevent urban sprawl. Mikael and I decided to buy the Golden West because we feel there’s life in this building, on this street and in this town. It’s an exciting time for Fort Bragg.”

That excitement is due, in large part, to the efforts of young people like Jessica and Mikael who are pumping new life and energy into our beloved area.

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Heidi Kraut

ghtheidi1When Heidi left the Mendocino Coast for Texas A&M University in 1996, she envisioned becoming a cowgirl on the open range. Her qualifications included having been a 4H kid most of her life, owning a pair of cowgirl boots, and plans to major in agriculture and political science. It didn’t take her long to realize she was more interested in politics than agriculture. She kept the boots and began stumping for political campaigns. She had no idea that one day she’d return to the place of her birth and run her own campaign.

***

After college, Heidi stayed in Texas and sold real estate for a couple of years. “During that time, I realized College Station was a great place to be a student, but I no longer fit into that category.” In 2003, she moved back to her parents’ home in Caspar to regroup and figure out what to do with her life.

She worked for Sallie Mac and Frankie’s and took art classes at College of the Redwoods. In one of those classes, she met her future husband Todd Sorenson. “He’d graduated from the [College of the Redwoods] woodworking program in 2002 and was asked to return for a semester to teach a class.” They started dating and talked about moving out of the area. “We were never ready to go at the same time. When I was ready, he was involved in something he didn’t want to leave and vice versa.”

heidi2In 2008, they decided to stay and bought a house in Fort Bragg. “Every other year we do something exciting,” Heidi said with a laugh. In 2010, daughter Sadie was born. They married in 2012, and two years later had daughter Mara. This summer, Todd was appointed shop manager of the woodworking school.

Eight years ago, Heidi was hired to manage the Hospice Thrift Store. “I was given the keys to the small a-frame building across from the Botanical Gardens, many bags of clothes, and told to open the store. Thankfully I had a lot of great volunteers who helped.” In 2011, the store relocated to an expansive, bright space in the Boatyard Shopping Center.

“I was pleased by the strong community that formed among the volunteers—most of whom are in their seventies and eighties. Some people work as many hours as I do and others once or twice a week. They’re such an inspiration—living to the fullest every day and giving to others.”

heidi3Heidi strives to discover each volunteer’s passion. “Someone pointed out that our vinyl records weren’t marked with prices. I said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the captain of the Vinyl Department!’ Another said our picture frames were stacking up and looked disorganized. ‘Congratulations, you’re the captain of the Frame Department!’”

In 2013, Heidi ran for and won a seat on the Fort Bragg City Council, serving out the year and a half term vacated by Dan Gjerde. “It took a lot of time away from my family and my job, but it was exciting and important work.” She often took her young daughter Sadie to committee meetings. “One day Sadie placed stuffed animals around a little table in our living room. I asked if she was having a tea party. She said, ‘No, we’re having a meeting!’ I’ve either ruined her or set her up for something great.”

While serving on the council, Heidi witnessed Fort Bragg citizens become increasingly involved in expressing their opinions. “It’s so exciting to see a full house at meetings. People usually attend because they’re stirred up and afraid. They want to say no to a particular issue and that’s important. But it’s also important for people to attend when they want to say yes, they think something is a good idea.”

In 2014, Heidi ran for a second term on the council, but was defeated. She was appointed to the Planning Commission in 2015 and served until January 2017. “A recent example of citizens saying ‘yes’ was when the proposed business Overtime Brewing was on the agenda. Dozens of supporters packed the room and made the commission’s job of approving it easier. It’s vital for public officials to hear the opinions of citizens.”

Heidi acknowledges that the transition to a tourist-based economy has been difficult for those whose lives were affected from the mill closure and decline in fishing. “We’ve gone from being a company town that assured fulltime jobs to a place where fulltime work sometimes has to be pieced together. People make it work, but it’s hard.

“Many people in Fort Bragg are dedicated to building a community to attract visitors who will spend money. The more we improve what our city has to offer, the greater chance we have of growing businesses to employ people and allow them to live here.”

Prime examples of these improvement efforts are the coastal trails that have been a huge hit with locals and tourists. “The Noyo Center for Marine Science is just getting started and doing amazing things. It will eventually attract links to universities. The North Coast Brewing Company has grown to where it’s bursting at the seams and they’re urging people to apply for jobs. Overtime Brewing is in the works, owned by people who grew up here.”

When Heidi returned to the coast in 2003, she was plagued by the mindset suffered by many in her situation—to come back means you’re a failure. “It took me a few years to realize it’s a good thing to come from a small town, a real accomplishment.

“There’s a perception that young people can’t make it here. That’s not true. There’s a great energy going on right now. In the past five years, I’ve seen a number of people return to buy beloved businesses to keep them intact. They’re buying houses and starting families. We’re living in one of the most exciting times I’ve ever seen in Fort Bragg.”

heidi4Heidi is a true gem. I could have talked with her for hours. However, I realize that no interview with a former public official is complete without asking some hard-hitting questions.

How do you explain the rumor that you don’t cook and subsist on a diet of candy bars?

“I do love to cook—and even started eating vegetables a little bit. There were a few years though, in college, when I might have eaten Hershey bars and peanut butter for one or two meals a day. The peanut butter is very nutritious. The fun size Hershey bars can be used to scoop the peanut butter right out of the jar, so there are no spoons or dishes to wash. This saves both time and water.”

Do you still have your cowgirl boots?

“I think the ones I had in high school are gone, but I have a nice pair handed down from a friend that I sometimes wear when neither sneakers nor high heels fit the outfit/occasion.”

And what occasion might that be—running for a seat on the city council?

“Off the record….”

Dang! I can’t reveal the answer (unless enticed with large sums of money).

For now Heidi is content to serve on the board of the Mendocino Coast District Hospital Foundation and happy to be raising two young community members who may have future leadership plans of their own.

Inspecting the bounty on her micro farm.

Inspecting the bounty on her micro farm.