Six years ago, the site of the former Jarcy’s Motel in Port Matilda was overgrown, littered with abandoned RVs, and covered in piles of trash that had accumulated over a 25-year period – in short, it was an eyesore.
But when Bart Grande looked at the 20 acres of land spanning two sides of Bald Eagle Creek, he saw something more. He saw opportunity. He saw “waterfront property.” And he saw a way to bring people together in a manner most Americans in this part of the world are not accustomed to.
Grande, a California native and father of five kids ranging in age from 12 to 28, moved to Centre County 15 years ago and worked at Penn State long enough to put his two oldest daughters through college. A restless entrepreneurial streak eventually led him to purchase the old Jarcy’s property at auction and, together with his family, he set about clearing the land, one piece of trash at a time.
“I didn’t have any money, but I had energy. I figured if I picked up the trash, I only had to pick it up once,” he says. “It was overwhelming. We picked up 150,000 pounds of trash, by hand. It took us 18 months to clean it up.”
What remained were two buildings – the old motel and a house – and an expansive green space between South Eagle Valley Road and the creek. Grande set about building his vision by hand: a bunk house to accommodate 20 guests, a cabana building with 13 private bedrooms, a separate bathroom building with eight private toilets, and a separate shower building, all coming together to form Godspeed Hostel, which opened for business in 2015. The existing house became Grande’s residence and office, and the motel became a storage facility.
Eventually, Grande added a large event hall in the style of the increasingly popular “party barns,” changing the name to Godspeed Events and Lodging. Despite the name change, the business is still very much a “hostel” designed to emulate the surf camps Grande, an avid surfer, has stayed in throughout the years, particularly in Central America.
“The design is what makes it a hostel. It’s all about community space,” he explains. “We’re trying to promote community. There was actual intent behind the way everything was built. The way we’re laid out, you couldn’t possibly stay in one of these rooms and not talk to anybody.”
Guests at the hostel come together for three meals a day, which are all prepared on-site by Grande and his three youngest children. Guests are also invited to gather around one large fire pit in the evenings. Large decks strung with hammocks along the cabanas and the bunkhouse encourage guests to relax and converse with each other throughout the day.
Grande describes the feel of the bunkhouse and the cabanas as “five-star rustic.” The spacious bunk rooms hold five sets of bunk beds each and are reminiscent of cabins at a summer sleepaway camp. Each cabana is immaculate, well-insulated, and sparsely furnished with small wooden tables, a futon, and a queen-sized bed, all built by Grande. You won’t find typical hotel room amenities like a minibar or a television, however – part of that intentional design to discourage guests from isolating themselves in their rooms.
The hostel design makes it ideal for retreats and other group gatherings. The facilities accommodate up to 50 overnight guests, and tent camping is permitted on the premises as well. Godspeed has played host to family reunions, writers’ camps, motorcycle rallies, fly fishing groups, and even the Papua New Guinea U-20 women’s World Cup soccer team. Most groups come back year after year, Grande says. A group of Penn State football fans book rooms for every home game, and Grande hopes to see even more fans join them on football weekends as the 2019 season approaches.
“Everything is about like-minded individuals coming together,” Grande says. “Our whole goal was, ‘How do we build the space for those groups to connect?’ We tried to build a place to allow it to be super-easy for humans to be humans and to connect and bond with each other. … It turned out about 1,000 times better than we could ever have imagined.”
The lush wooded area along the creek makes for an ideal fishing spot, and Grande keeps a separate access road open for the public to fish on his property.
“It would be selfish of me not to share this,” he says.
The creek also serves as an idyllic backdrop for outdoor wedding ceremonies. With a full nightclub sound system, radiant floor heating, and large barn doors that roll open to access the outdoors, the party barn can handle large wedding receptions, as well as events like fraternity and sorority parties and end-of-life celebrations, Grande says.
Hidden from view at one end of the party barn is Grande’s other business – his race car tuning shop. Grande has been tuning race cars for many years, having opened his first automotive shop back when he still lived in California. He named that business “Godspeed,” he says, to remind young men obsessed with cars that God should come first.
He kept the name for the hostel because, “It means ‘travel with God,’ usually on a dangerous adventure. Anyone who is coming here is taking a risk, having an adventure. So, ‘Go with God.’ Have a road of life. Take risks. Fail. Fall in love. Lose. Do something risky.”
These are the kinds of life lessons Grande strives to impart, not only to his own children, but also to the guests he serves at Godspeed. He actively participates in every event that takes place there, getting to know his guests and sometimes filling an almost parental role.
“I love hosting Penn State student groups. They all know I’m the dad,” he says. “I have built great relationships with students. It’s super fun, and I’ve had in-depth conversations with kids about stuff they might not be able to talk to parents about. It’s a moment when I can have a big influence on another generation. It’s a neat role to fill in their lives.”
Grande believes his own children are learning important lessons from the endeavor as well – about taking risks, hard work, running a business, and understanding and getting along with all kinds of people.
“We found a little crazy niche,” he says. “It’s so much fun to see what happens with every event; a whole city just pops up. They all create their own dynamics, and then they leave and it’s nothing but a memory. But the gifts they give us – we all change, because we meet different people and see different things.”
For more information, visit godspeedhostel.com.
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.