Most would look at an empty piece of land off Highway 26 and think it was good for nothing more than grazing cattle. Donna Whitaker saw it was perfect for a smart retirement.
The Mokelumne Hill native made the decision to return to the area to build her retirement plan: Toyon Smart Storage.
Whitaker, a graduate of Calaveras High School, left the area to pursue her education and career, spending 30 years as a commercial appraiser in Sacramento.
“I am a commercial appraiser, by trade … I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Whitaker said. “I appraise everything from high-rise office buildings in San Francisco to pistachio orchards in Visalia, the whole gamut. All of Northern California.”
After three decades in the corporate world, Whitaker, 59, said the work is taking its toll on her physically and emotionally. Both her father and her husband died, her children are grown, and Whitaker wanted to be able to spend more time with her mom and her dogs where life isn’t so fast-paced.
“You get (a certain amount of time) to live from start to end and I wanted to be closer to my mom,” Whitaker said. “She lives in San Andreas, and I get to see her every day if I want. Life is different here, right? It’s a slower pace. It’s a healthier pace.”
It’s a way of life she grew up with in Calaveras County. Her mother, Nadine Martin, worked for the assessor’s office for 30 years, and father, Doug Martin, was known to many as “Doug the Barber,” running his shop in Moke Hill for a time before moving it to San Andreas, retiring after 28 years.
Whitaker began planning her return to the area and what she was going to do to sustain retirement. Having done her research, she saw the demand and viability in self-storage facilities. The project reconnected her with many people, among which was Stewart Alberts, whose company Whitaker chose as her general contractor.
“(Stewart) knows everybody there is to know that’s in this business,” Whitaker said, mentioning she went to high school with Alberts. “Actually, this project has reconnected me with a lot of people I went to high school with, surprisingly.”
The project didn’t happen overnight. It took two and-a-half years to find the right location, get the facility designed, get a loan, and begin construction. And building began in March when many things became suddenly uncertain. Whitaker had no choice but to press on with her plans.
“I really didn’t get a choice of whether or not I wanted to build since COVID hit because I was already committed with the loan,” Whitaker said. “I’ve been fortunate because construction is an essential service, so I was able to move forward. Self-storage is an essential business so I’m able to continue to operate. I’ve been very fortunate, really, just given how many small businesses have not been that fortunate.”
Four buildings on the 5-acre site house 245 units with room on the property to expand to two more buildings. A solar array has made it possible for Whitaker to keep the energy needs of the business completely self-contained, so she doesn’t have to rely on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to supply her electricity. That means she can keep the business well-lit throughout the night.
The business has also allowed Whitaker to connect with the local community, learning about those who use her services.
“When people lease, they have a story and it’s so interesting,” Whitaker said. “I get that personal connection with people, and that’s really fun. I had much less of that as an appraiser. It was more about the property.”
Toyon Smart Storage was officially opened on Oct. 5 and Whitaker already has clients renting the variety of storage units available. Sizes range from 5 foot by 10 foot up to 12 foot by 30 foot. Some units are ADA-compliant, and 20% are extra tall and big to accommodate boats and RVs. Whitaker said the proximity of her business to many of the lakes and recreational areas in the Mother Lode have made her facility ideal for those who don’t have the space at home to store the larger vehicles.
Clients can access the facility through a gate that is opened via smart phone, and units can be rented completely online.
Outdoor parking for the bigger vehicles is also available at Toyon Smart Storage, which has around-the-clock security surveillance, but that requires a call and a physical signature rather than remote leasing options.
Whitaker has been open a short time but is already giving back to the community.
“I also have Toys 4 Tots here,” she said. The space is supplied at no cost to the nonprofit organization. “They’ll be here through Christmas because they’re collecting inventory. They were really strapped for a place to put their stuff.”