Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hotel of Dreams: Couple worked hard to breathe new life into storied Fort Garry

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The Fort Garry Hotel has had a lot of history -- the kind of history that suggests it could easily have been history long ago.

Even with its designation as a site-protected historical national treasure.

That's because over a period of what amounts to a century, the hotel has endured a succession of ownership tax arrears, bankruptcies and even a time when the city had the bailiffs lock the doors.

And the beauty on Broadway went cold and dark.

Yet, this week -- on the 100th anniversary of the day it opened as one of the pearls in a national necklace of castle-like railway hotels -- the grande dame of Winnipeg inns looked more elegant and prosperous than at almost any time in its long and storied life.

The occasion Wednesday evening was a period party in the spectacular seventh-floor ballrooms; a space that had once been despoiled by the rough trade of a casino a different owner gambled on being Las Vegas north. And lost everything.

On this night, though, it was as much a time to celebrate as it was to party for Richard Bel, Ida Albo and 400 invited guests.

They're the managing partners, the husband-and-wife team most responsible for there being a 100th anniversary celebration.

By way of adding an eye-popping extra, Ida imported a burlesque troop from Vancouver.

Risqué? Perhaps, but not as risky -- or daunting -- as the business partnership the two undertook at a time when the hotel was failing and falling apart. Yet, the little-known story of how Richard and Ida and their financing partners resurrected the Fort Garry's charm and rebuilt its reputation should be taught in every business school.

It started, accidentally, 20 years ago this month.

Gilles and Jean Laberge, a pair of Quebec businessmen with no interest in running a hotel, had reluctantly inherited the Fort Garry because of a bridge loan to the previous owner who ended up having to walk away.

About the same time, Richard and Ida were running a restaurant at The Forks, operating in a small kitchen -- and on an even smaller budget -- when the manager of the Fort Garry invited them to take a look at the hotel's huge kitchen. Then he invited them to use it for their restaurant catering if they would take over the hotel's food and beverage business.

They accepted, happily.

Not long after, the hotel's reluctant owners made them another offer. Gilles Laberge sat down with them.

"We'll be the financial partner, you'll be the operating partner and we'll give you half the title."

All they had to do was give the Laberges a $50,000 good-faith down payment.

"We didn't have any money," Ida says. The deal went ahead anyway.

"And that's how our partnership started," she says.

The Leberges put up the money for upgrading the hotel, and Richard and Ida provided their brains, creativity and sweat equity. Plus their vision.

They would need all of that and more.

That first month on the job, January 1994, the hydro bill was more than the room revenue; $54,000 coming in from rooms, $57,000 going out for heat and light.

And that first year, Richard opened the door with a campaign: any room, any time for $59, breakfast included.

He had decided the Fort Garry was really a big bed and breakfast.

From the start, Richard, the former professor of economics, saw the hotel as "a building with gorgeous public space, wrapped up in beautiful facade and rooms sprinkled around it, and a big, beautiful kitchen."

What he also saw was a restaurant with rooms.

Eventually, they would take back the casino space, expand to even more local banquet facilities without equal next door at Fort Garry Place, and add a world-class spa.

But everything they do is world-class, and they travel the world to bring it home.

The city is blessed to have them, because there will never be another couple like them in these parts. Not in a 100 years.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 B1

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