One hundred years ago this November, Winnipeg entrepreneurs Angelo Ferrari and Patrick Grogan opened a hotel on Albert Street, a short distance from the corner of Portage & Main.
The brand-new Royal Albert Hotel had 54 rooms, a buffet restaurant, telephone service and hot water, according to an advertisement in the Free Press at the time. But according to city heritage documents, the Albert's opening was overshadowed by the larger and more luxurious Hotel Fort Garry on Broadway the same year.
One century later, a revitalized Fort Garry Hotel has spent the bulk of 2013 celebrating its 100th year of operation. And yet again, what's now the Royal Albert Arms is still struggling in its shadow, both as a heritage property and an important piece of this city's cultural fabric.
The Fort Garry Hotel, under the proprietorship of Ida Albo, has reclaimed its rightful place as an upscale heritage hotel -- the ideal setting for marriages involving relatively affluent young couples, weekend getaways for Winnipeggers who have no time to get away and trysts for all manner of visitors.
The Royal Albert Arms, up until two years ago, was instead beloved as a living piece of Winnipeg music history. Although down on its luck as a hotel for many decades, the main-floor space has a cherished history as the site of legions of punk, metal and indie-rock shows in the 1980s and onwards.
The Albert nurtured legions of young Winnipeg rock bands, some of them awful but many of them amazing. It also played host to legendary performances by the likes of Minneapolis indie pioneers Hüsker Dü, punk-pop band Green Day before they were an FM radio staple and pretty much every punk or indie band to tour across Canada from the mid-1980s to the last decade.
To suggest the Albert occupies an important place in the heart of Winnipeg's music scene is sort of like saying St. Peter's Basilica is an important building in Rome.
Every facet of the Albert, from the old wooden bar to the raised stage to the infamously awful washrooms back in the day, is effectively hallowed ground in Winnipeg. While the building itself is important from both a heritage and urban streetscape perspective, the venue deserves all the fuzzy nostalgia that goes along with being a legendary venue.
This legacy, however, was interrupted during the Victoria Day weekend of 2011, when a water pipe burst and the hotel was forced to close. Deseo Bistro, the well-regarded restaurant that took up shop in the sunroom at the front of the building, decamped to Fort Rouge. Sam Smith, the well-regarded talent buyer who booked the bands for the Albert, was forced to find work elsewhere.
Hotel owner Daren Jorgenson, who had purchased the Albert in 2007 amid promises of renovations, was left to attempt to raise the money to make the repairs necessary to allow the building to reopen. But the former Internet-pharmacy magnate was struggling with financial troubles of his own.
The Albert did not reopen until March of this year, almost two years after being shuttered. Bands were booked once more for the venue. A restaurant returned to the sunroom.
The future of the Albert looked promising once more -- until this week, when Jorgenson revealed his partner in the building is a convicted criminal once regarded by police as one of the most dangerous people in Winnipeg.
Jorgenson told the Free Press this week his partner in the Albert is Ray Rybachuk, who many Winnipeggers may remember as the figure responsible for erecting a large and illegal electronic sign on the Boyd Building, a Portage Avenue heritage structure.
The City of Winnipeg waged a long and protracted battle to remove the sign, placed without a permit and in defiance of city orders. Rybachuk also ran afoul of the city for transforming a public park alongside the Boyd Building into a surface-parking lot.
Then in 2012, his co-ownership of the Boyd Building proved an immense embarrassment to another one of the structure's investors -- Armik Babakhanians, the president of Caspian Construction, the firm that won a $137-million contract to convert the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue into Winnipeg's new police headquarters.
This association was embarrassing because Rybachuk is extremely well-known to police and justice officials in Winnipeg. Between 1994 and 2006, Rybachuk was convicted of assault, mischief, narcotic trafficking, money laundering and obstruction of justice, court records show.
As well, criminal background checks on him include warnings he had ties to both the Los Brovos and the Manitoba chapter of the Hells Angels.
In 2012, senior city officials and the Winnipeg Police Service insisted Rybachuk had no involvement in the construction of their new headquarters.
"The city was aware that both Mr. Rybachuk and Mr. Babakhanians, along with others, had investments in the Boyd Building. Security checks, which included speaking with the owner of Caspian Construction, concluded there was no reason not to allow Caspian Construction to bid on the Winnipeg Police Service headquarters project," the city and the police said in a joint statement.
In a story that received prominent play in this newspaper, Babakhanians immediately pledged to end any business association with Rybachuk.
As a result, it is unlikely Daren Jorgenson was not aware of Rybachuk's background before entering into a partnership with the well-known figure. While Jorgenson may not be a big fan of this newspaper -- he has been critical of the coverage of the protracted Albert closure -- a single Google search yields stories by several media outlets about his new partner.
With all due respect to Jorgenson, this is not acceptable. The Royal Albert Arms may not have a crystal ballroom like the Fort Garry Hotel, but it is just as important to this city's cultural life.
Any commercial association with individuals who have a serious criminal past is troubling, especially in a city that has struggled for decades against gang activity. Front-line police officers, who work every day to protect all Winnipeggers from organized crime, are infuriated by the accommodation of known criminals by otherwise legitimate businesspeople.
If Jorgenson needed money to reopen the Albert last year, other businesspeople could have and would have taken the building off his hands. Jorgenson has said he would never sell the property, however.
For the sake of the Royal Albert Arms, Winnipeg's music scene and what remains of our collective sense of pride in this city, here's hoping Daren Jorgenson can find himself a new partner.