Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Minaki's back... it will never close again'

$4-M resurrection reopens legendary lodge

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MINAKI, Ont. -- It's been repaired, rebuilt, restored, refurbished, and resurrected, at a cost of $4 million.

This weekend, wilderness resort Minaki Lodge reopened.

"Every inch of this place has been cleaned, sanded, polished, and varnished," said general manager Herb Le Grange, surveying the 50-foot-high cathedral ceiling of the main lodge's rotunda. The main lodge is a 14,000-square-foot all-log construction.

The famous red, buttoned-down leather chairs have been reconditioned. The mounted wildlife heads have been cleaned and combed. The white chinking between the 80-year-old fir logs imported from British Columbia has been washed and retouched. The main lodge has been re-decked all around. Two new eight-foot high bronze herons spew water in the front fountain.

"Minaki's back," said Le Grange, spreading his arms out wide. It's a bit of a pun on Bobby Darin's "Mackie's back" lyric, from his 1959 hit single Mack the Knife.

"Everyone's welcome," said Le Grange. For example, this weekend the lodge brought back the traditional open house Mother's Day breakfast and brunch.

"It will never close again," vowed Le Grange.

That's a bold prediction considering the string of owners who have tried and failed to make a success of the resort, north of Kenora and 240 kilometres east of Winnipeg. The list of past owners includes the Ontario government, the nearby White Dog First Nation, and, recently, a Texas millionaire.

Minaki Lodge was built by Canadian National Railways in 1927 with seemingly no consideration for cost.

Swedish log rollers were brought in to construct the log buildings, using massive fir trees from British Columbia. Scottish stone masons cut and erected the incredible granite walls and pilasters and fireplace. English gardeners landscaped the grounds.

But the resort has been closed the last six years. The floors had heaved, roofs leaked, paint was peeling, timber had rotted, and many buildings had been vandalized when Phil Archer of Archer Group real estate and mortgage companies in Calgary bought the resort for $2.2 million last year.

Almost 7,000 square feet of new hardwood flooring has been installed. A new sewer system and a state of the art water system have been built and were turned on just last week.

The new owner has also purchased 22 new Lund boats with Mercury motors for anglers. There is a boat for water skiing with a 350 horsepower motor. There is a pontoon boat for sight-seeing tours. There will be jet ski rentals. There is an outdoor, 12-person hot tub.

As for the nine-hole golf course, it's getting there. It could open by late June, Le Grange said.

There is also bingo, a fitness centre, a pro shop for golfers, a bait shop, the Blue Herron gift shop, a 100-seat movie theatre showing movies all day for all age groups, a day care, marble countertops in the bathrooms, mini-bars throughout, and too many other features to mention. The Web site is minakilodge.ca.

"I think the whole world is waiting for the Minaki Lodge to open," said Le Grange. "Everyone loves Minaki Lodge. There's such romanticism about the place."

Le Grange is a story himself. In 1981, he and Paul Albrechtsen turned a 20-suite hotel near Riding Mountain into Elkhorn Resort, Manitoba's highest-rated resort, which now has 57 guest rooms and 25 chalets. Le Grange is also the only manager of Gull Harbour in Hecla to break even, turning a $700,000 loss into a $2,000 profit in three years. For the past five years, he helped CanadInns establish new hotels around Manitoba.

But Le Grange always considered Minaki Lodge the big enchilada. So last fall he asked Archer to hire him.

"I'm old enough to know better," said Le Grange, 55, giving his head a shake. "This has always seemed to me to be the ultimate challenge to make it work. No one has succeeded. I feel I have the answers from being a competitor all these years."

In total, 150 people will staff Minaki Lodge from May 1 to Nov. 1.

Many are champing at the bit. "I've got six fishing guides out raking leaves. We're ready," said Le Grange. There will be 10 fishing guides in total, with more available on a standby basis.

Le Grange also hopes to get VIA Rail to bring back weekend rail service to Minaki. Rail Travel Tours of Winnipeg has already planned a "fall colours" tour package of northwestern Ontario from Sept. 25-28 that includes Minaki Lodge.

Room rates range from $99 to $159 per night. The minimum rate increases to $119 on the last Friday of June.

The resort has 120 guest rooms, and 24 cabin rooms. The long-term plan is to sell the guest rooms as condominium units. The condos are expected to cost in the range of $80,000 to $200,000. However, the lodge is still awaiting final approval from the Ontario Securities Commission. Then it must file full disclosure with the Manitoba Real Estate Board. It's hoped that will happen this summer.

People who buy condos could, when not using them, put the suites into a rental pool to earn income from other guests. The condos would also be looked after by Minaki Lodge when owners are away.

"You have to develop condos. You just can't survive otherwise. Everyone else does it," said Le Grange, predicting the condos could be sold out within two months.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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