Winnipeggers who fondly remember hearing Monuments Galore, Green Day or Sum 41 pound it out at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel might soon be able to relive those glory days.
The historic 104-year-old hotel, considered a linchpin for redeveloping Albert Street, has a new owner, Neil Soorsma, after it was purchased at a mortgage auction in November for $1.35 million.
Soorsma, who describes himself as a successful landlord who has redeveloped a number of buildings over a 30-year real estate career, says plans for a restaurant to open on the main floor are underway.
"It’s not a name young people might remember, but it’s a good restaurant with a good history in the city," he says. "We might have an announcement to make very shortly."
Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, whose Point Douglas ward includes Albert Street, says he’s feeling a very good vibe after meeting Soorsma in person.
"He’s definitely on the path to ensuring good tenants, good behaviour, that new tenants are properly vetted," Pagtakhan says. "He delves deeper into his tenants’ character, it’s not just about money for him.
"I have a good feeling about this. He’s the kind of person we want to own the Royal Albert."
After the drama that unfolded over the past 10 years, Soorsma says it’s time for "good management" to take over and to make it a successful property, no matter the income level of its occupants.
The one-time amateur musician, who’s played in a number of venues in Winnipeg, remembers the Albert’s halcyon days well. He’s making no promises about a music venue, but it is clearly a top-of-mind possibility.
"I’d really like to do that," he says. "I was there when I was younger. It would be great if we could do that.
“I have a good feeling about this. He’s the kind of person we want to own the Royal Albert.” - Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan
"I’m not saying we can, for sure, because there are lots of roads, opportunities you end up following, but my heart’s in that direction."
For now, Soorsma — "I’ve owned it for two weeks" — is taking stock of the property, identifying issues to address and beginning to make repairs. The first order of business was addressing fire code issues.
Creditors foreclosed on former owner
For Exchange District advocates, Soorsma’s plans sound like good news.
David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone, fondly remembers nights listening to music at the Albert, even if, or perhaps especially since, some of them were before it was legal for him to be there.
"It’s been a long time since we’ve had a live-music venue in the Exchange," he says.
Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, says she’s hoping the sale of the hotel marks an end to the stagnation that has plagued Albert Street.
Opened in 1913, the Albert was built in the Spanish Colonial style, with ornate wrought-iron balconies, a red-tile roof and a classic symmetrical layout to its facade, which was curved to match the bend in Albert street.
Tugwell, who has not met Soorsma and doesn’t know much about him, says she is hopeful his plans include restoring the hotel’s heritage character. She says the previous owner had grand plans, too.
"We hung on for three years, waiting for Daren Jorgensen to iron out his details," she says. Jorgensen lost the hotel when his creditors foreclosed, forcing the mortgage auction.
"We’ll give the new owner about three months, see what he wants to do," she says. "If it’s the status quo, the stakeholders will have to get it shut down."
Tugwell says Albert Street revitalization has essentially been held hostage by the drama that unfolded in the 10 years Jorgensen owned the property.
"You have the Gregg Building, which is a significant heritage building adjacent to the Albert, and nobody wants to redevelop the Gregg until they know what’s going on with the Albert."
Currently used for low-income housing
Jorgensen bought the hotel in 2007, but his plans were derailed by a lack of resources and a water-main break. He also recruited notorious businessman Ray Rybachuk, who had ties to organized crime, as a financial partner.
Development stalled under the turbulent partnership, which ended when Rybachuk died while snowmobiling in 2013.
Angela Mathieson, president and CEO of downtown development advocacy group CentreVenture, says the agency has offered to help Soorsma in bringing the hotel back to life.
"Albert Street is such a critical piece of the downtown," Mathieson says.
Tugwell says the hotel is being run as low-income housing and is in violation of its occupancy permit. She and Pensato both say the state of the hotel and ongoing vacancy of the nearby St. Charles Hotel are making Albert Street an area with significant problems.
"The crime rate is way up, we’re picking up needles, there are domestic calls on this street every day," Tugwell says.
Soorsma says he’s heard several ideas pitching the Albert as a boutique hotel, and while he’s not ruling it out, he’s also not ruling out the possibility of running it, legally, as either a hostel or a housing facility.
He says any issues attributed to the Albert are due to mismanagement by the previous owner, not the social status of any occupants.
"I think the key will be good management, actively involved, with a real concern for the impact on the surroundings," he says. "I have a few properties, all low-income tenants, zero problems.
"I am very good at what I do."
Eyes turn to St. Charles Hotel
The next piece of the Albert Street puzzle is the St. Charles Hotel, which has been vacant for years. Owner Ken Zaifman, a local immigration lawyer, has said he plans to redevelop the hotel, but Tugwell is still waiting.
"Is Ken going to redevelop?" she says. "That’s the million-dollar question. Maybe he’s waiting for the hotel to deteriorate enough to demolish it."
Privately, sources in the redevelopment industry say what might be needed is a "public shaming" of Zaifman to spur progress. Zaifman did not respond to requests for an interview.
Tugwell says she’s critical of CentreVenture for not "stepping up to the plate" on the Albert the way the downtown revitalization agency did for the St. Regis Hotel.
Mathieson says once the hotel went to mortgage auction, CentreVenture’s hands, as a city-owned agency, were tied.
"You can see how it would be a problem for the city, essentially, to show up and outbid, or up-bid, somebody in the private sector," she says.
Mathieson also says complicating any sale of the hotel prior to the mortgage auction was a long list of creditors with a claim to the property. "Even if you could have approached the owner and say ‘I’ll buy your mortgage,’ the reality is there were lots of other debts on this title."
She says CentreVenture has had an active file on the Albert for at least a year and a half, and acted immediately when it found out about the mortgage auction.
"We were in contact with no less than 14 developers, taking them through the hotel and making sure they knew everything the hotel offered. And we offered all the things we normally do with heritage buildings, whether that’s direct investment or offering financing support."
"In the position we were in, we think we did the best thing we could possibly do."
Mathieson says that while she was not aware of Soorsma or his track record, she’s also unaware of any reason to be skeptical.
"Ultimately, we know the best plan is for a solid owner, and so, we’re hopeful."