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Johnson’s Beach resort changes hands

Johnson’s Beach, a Russian River landmark that has welcomed generations of summer visitors eager to swim and splash in the refreshing waters near Guerneville, has changed hands in a deal completed Thursday that heralds a new era for the day-use and campground destination.

The 11-acre site has served as a recreational hot spot for nearly a century, with big beach umbrellas, pedal boats, old-time music and soft-serve ice cream among its many standbys. The down-home resort has been owned and operated by Clare Harris and his family for 48 years.

New owners Nick Moore and Dan Poirier, a San Francisco couple, said that aside from a few cosmetic upgrades and 21st-century touches, they mostly intend to keep the place just as it has been.

And Harris, 94, said he plans to be back behind the counter this summer with his wife, Carla, helping Moore and Poirier ease into their new roles as operators of the lively seasonal venue.

“I’ve been going to Johnson’s and renting kayaks pretty much my whole life,” said Moore, 47, a financial planner. “I just love the community vibe and the feel. It’s, for me, my getaway from the Bay Area.”

In fact, he and his husband were renting kayaks with a bunch of friends during a July Fourth getaway about three years ago when Moore got to contemplating his long-lived affection for the place. He recalls telling Harris, who bought the beach with his late brother in 1967, “I love this place, and if you ever want to sell, would you call me?

“Two years later - which was basically last February - they called us and we went up and started talking to them,” Moore said. “It was three years ago that I randomly approached them, and they kept my card!”

Harris and his six nieces - his late brother’s daughters - formally listed the property last July with a $2.8 million asking price, though Poirier said he and his husband paid less. He declined to share the purchase price.

There was interest from other potential buyers, Harris said, but once he and his family met Moore and Poirier again, it was clear who the new owners would be.

“We knew they were the right fit,” said Harris, for whom the prospect of a sale was bittersweet in any case.

“We have a very close relationship and bond with the Harris family,” said Poirier, who just left his post as a strategy consultant for Wells Fargo Bank so he can devote himself full time to preparing for beach season.

The resort site has been in operation since about 1918. It offers a gravel beach, boathouse rentals and a snack shack, where Harris and his staff have been serving up $3 burgers and speakers float tunes from the 1930s and ’40s down toward the water. Admission and parking are free. Visitors pay only for food, refreshments and rental equipment.

Up the hill, the resort includes 10 cabins and 35 campsites, as well as a large, multistory lodge with two apartments and a five-bedroom bungalow.

The beach access road is right downtown, so it’s smack dab in the middle of things, helping shape Guerneville’s resort atmosphere and reputation for summer fun. And despite the development of several publicly owned river beaches in the past two decades, driving up visitorship along the lower river, Johnson’s remains a popular destination, offering on-site sales of beer and other snacks, as well as umbrella and watercraft rental, none of which is available at county beaches.

Moore and Poirier plan to live on the property, in the bungalow during the off-season, and in one of the apartments during the summer.

They’re also keeping their San Francisco house, as Moore will spend the middle of each week in the city conducting business, though “the real Nick is in shorts and in a tank top … living on the river.”

“In my heart, I’m a river raft guide,” Moore said.

But the pair is nonetheless bringing some business acumen to the job. Poirier said the beach would continue to host the ever-popular Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival each year, as well as the Vineman triathlon, and would be exploring other event opportunities, as well.

In addition to a new website featuring online, advanced reservations for the first time, key changes will include the acceptance of credit cards, a little bit of painting and landscaping around the campground.

They’re also selling resort merchandise for the first time, starting with Johnson’s Beach T-shirts, ball caps and sweatshirts.

“But really, it’s about keeping it the same,” Poirier said. “We want to keep it affordable. We want to keep it very Americana, so it’s building on what (the Harris family) created.”

Laura Wilson, Harris’ niece and longtime co-manager, with her husband, of the campground and cabins, said she was thankful to the “generations of families” who supported such “a unique and special place in this day and age.”

Moore and Poirier are planning a Memorial Day weekend opening, complete with a marching band and a key-passing ceremony.

“We really want to recognize the family,” Poirier said, “because we want to honor what they built.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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