Transit Hotel reopens this month


The Transit Hotel is reopening this month to serve take-out. The Smokehouse BBQ menu pays tribute to the area's rich history as Edmonton's Meatpacking District. Photo: Mike Carter


Not far from Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers hoisted Stanley Cups in the '80s, Wayne Gretzky Drive winds its way into Belvedere,  the ‘hood where the team’s famed former owner, Peter Pocklington, ventured some of his capital into the Gainers beef and pork processing plant, once Canada’s second-largest meat-packer.

A shiny new building on the right greets you to this part of town. 


It looks like it’s wrapped in tinfoil to keep warm before serving. It’s the city’s very silver,  brand new bus depot.


On the north side of the Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage stands a giant red brick smokestack, a tall reminder of when this sector of the city - once called Packingtown -  made up Edmonton’s Meatpacking District for the better part of a century.


Then one day, that vibrant community was gone.


The 40-metre tall smokestack on what's now transit property belonged to Gainers’ rival, Canada Packers Ltd. and was built in 1936. It’s not the only reminder of those bygone times in these parts. Another lies just a little further on down the road. 


The Canada Packers plant official opening postcard. The land now plays host to the Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, named after Edmonton's first female bus driver.




As downtown’s futuristic looking skyscrapers disappear in the rearview mirror behind, ahead a billboard stretched across a train rail overpass shoves north Edmonton history into your face.


Welcome Fort Road” the sign reads. “A footprint in the past…keeping pace with the future.


If you’re lucky like I was, a CN Rail freighter will roll above your head as you drive under - as if its only purpose was not to move goods but instead, give you a real sense of why the area came to be a magnet for the industrial investment that led to Packingtown.


Cresting the hill on the other side of the overpass, off to your left, is a vestige of that past which predates the smokestack.


It's just beyond the 7/11 convenience store sign on the immediate horizon - another reminder that Belvedere is a mix of old and new everywhere you look - where the words “Transit Hotel”  shout a defiant cry from the top of a historical landmark building that simply refuses to die.


Crumble though it may have in its 112 years of life, the hotel on the corner of 66 Street and Fort Road recently had some reconstructive surgery after being shuttered in 2017. 


By the end of this month, the Transit - as it is known, will have reopened. 


At least that's the hope.


First it will gather steam as a take-out Smokehouse BBQ, with the food paying tribute to its anti-vegan past. 


Later, when restrictions allow, the building can show off its new facelift as host to a full dine-in restaurant and live music venue. 


    Here's a video from the inside of the hotel as it nears an opening date:







A pair of investors - Ray Pritlove, a chef/restaurateur and David Egan, NAIT graduate, power engineer and former United Conservative Party candidate for the riding that includes the hotel within its boundary - are planning to spend somewhere in the neighbourhood of "seven or eight" figures to save the Transit from the wrecking ball. Money they’ve mostly raised themselves, combined with a successful crowdsourcing campaign and possible government grants.


Pritlove and Egan are tightlipped about exactly just how much they’ve spent so far. 


“That’s something we’re keeping a little bit close to our chest because we know there’s a number of things that could happen in the future,” Egan told me.


David Egan, with his son Callum inside the Transit earlier this month.



 There were hiccups along the way, delays and skyrocketing costs.


There was a wood framed cooler room that had to be refurbished because of rules that didn’t exist last time the place was opened, that ban food storage on porous surfaces. It's described in the video above.  


“We had to put fibre reinforced plastic on the ceiling, the walls, all the tile on the floor," he said. "The place where the kegs are going to go we had to pour concrete. It was extremely expensive."


The initial estimate for this repair was a few thousand dollars. 


The price tag ended up at around $20,000. At least, that’s what Egan thinks. Later, he admits he doesn’t really know the actual number. 


And so it went throughout the entire project so far.  


“We’ve already almost tripled our initial budget and we’re probably going to go higher,” Egan said. 


Egan and Pritlove, who he has known for about three years, also encountered another large challenge when all of their plans crashed head-on into COVID-19’s takeover of the world. 


“This was not intentional for us to be doing this in the middle of a pandemic,” Egan joked. “It was just a matter of when we were able to secure insurance, then incorporate, sign the lease and begin renovations.”


Although the revamp is not complete, phase one of the rollout - the opening of the Smokehouse BBQ kitchen for take-out dining - will happen later this month.


When that will be, like their budget so far, is also hard to pin down. 


“We are hoping to open within a day or two, before or after Christmas,” is all he could tell me. “We’re pretty much ready on the take out side.”


The soft rollout of the kitchen is an opportunity for the pair to see what people like from their menu and give them an opportunity to try the food. 


“The food has to be successful for them to come back. That’s up to my partner, but I’ve had his cooking and it's amazing.”


Like a time capsule put up on the corner, the Transit looks almost the same now as it did then.




It was after he used the Transit as his campaign headquarters during his 2019 provincial election campaign, that a friend of Egan’s connected him with the owner of the building, Daryn Ruzycki. 


The idea of reinvigorating the hotel and pub was already building in his mind because of his emotional attachments to the place and its history. 


“I don’t think anybody was taking it serious at first,” Egan said. “It was something we made jokes about for a while. As we had conversations, we started sharing the area’s history on Facebook and it really got traction.”


Even Egan's political rival, Deron Bilous, the man who ended up winning the riding for the New Democrats that year and serves as Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview MLA, has expressed support for the project.


"This is an exciting opportunity for the Fort Road area." Bilous said. "It blends the history of this part of town with a modern, entrepreneurial spirit. Small businesses across Alberta, including here in northeast Edmonton, have had a hard year and I think Edmontonians will be itching to support local and patronize this restaurant and others like it once they’re able to do so."


Egan was bolstered by the community's support. 


“We got a feel for how much of a buy into that nostalgia factor the neighbouring communities and the city itself had. This is a fun thing, it’s something we’ve got fairly universal bipartisan support for. It’s a positive in a negative time that we’re going through right now and I think that’s the reason we’ve got a fair bit of press. It’s tough to be negative about this.”


Pritlove helped Egan as his Chief Financial Officer during that campaign. Both are known around the city for their heavy involvement in politics. 


"We had many discussions with the owner of the building and the more we talked and flushed the idea out, the more it made sense," Pritlove said. 


Now that the opening days are close, it's a bit of an unknown how things will turnout.


"With the amount of interest we have had from locals and media, my belief is our first few months will be very steady. COVID-19 has obviously tempered any massive sale expectations. Take out and delivery may be busier than I would have guessed. We really don't know at this point. We feel privileged to be able to do this project now. People need a reason to get excited and we hope that this will do that."


The backside of the Transit Hotel. Photo: Mike Carter


Every time something happens with the building, people want to know. 


Which may strike as a bit odd for those who remember this region of the country as being more known for bulldozing its past.


“It is extraordinary in a city like Edmonton, where we have a very poor track record of preserving heritage buildings and historic architecture,” Senator Paula Simons told me. 


An Edmontonian and former Edmonton Journal columnist, Simons has family ties to the history of the area where the Transit Hotel sits. 


First her grandfather, then her uncle ran a General Store in Packingtown. Simons has fond memories of Uncle Alfie spoiling her and her little brother when the family made trips to the store. 


“He was an institution in the neighbourhood,” she said of Alfie. “I still meet people who tell me that they grew up knowing him and that over the years, their family would come to the store and if they didn’t have very much, my Uncle would slip them a little extra candy or help their parents make ends meet.”


Because of those ties, the Transit Hotel held a spot within her family’s  own mythology. 


“I have always followed the trials and travails of the Transit Hotel over the years because of that family connection to the neighbourhood,” Simons said. “There’s something about the hotel that instantly takes you back to the days when this was The West.”


Fort Road was the main transportation route to Fort Saskatchewan and a big conduit for people that were coming from the farming communities in the northeast into the city. 


Even into the latter half of the 20th Century and perhaps even today, people come to the area from outlying communities to do their groceries.


“I’m young enough to remember that if you got on the train after an event at the Coliseum and it went up to Belvedere, you could smell the rendering plants and you could see the horses waiting to be [slaughtered] in their corrals. It was still there in my childhood, Packingtown. Not what it had been in its golden age but still, a thriving business centre,” Simons said. 


“Over the years as the packing plants closed down and the meat-packing industry consolidated, the businesses that were the wellspring of that community started to disappear.”


The jobs that came with these plants were not easy. They were rough and tumble, and the people that did them were also that way.


“They were really difficult jobs that employed hundreds of people and they kept a vibrant neighbourhood alive,” Simons said. 


Physically demanding and emotionally taxing work though it was, it sustained a community and when the packing plant jobs were gone, the neighbourhood all but went with them.


Those jobs, the people and the downturn that followed brought the blue collar neighbourhood a reputation of grit and determination, a significant juxtaposition when set against today’s sanitized world of preferred plush comfort and safeness. 


Set against the all-too-preciousness of today, the Transit of yesterday is a scary place.


It’s a reputation Egan, as one of the new investors in the pub wants to distance himself from. 


He’s getting rid of VLTs and not opening the hotel portion for a while, with an eye to student housing as one possibility for it in the future. Minors will be allowed before 9 P.M.


“People are going to walk in and see families dining there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be an environment where people who want to cause trouble are going to come back. There isn’t even going to be TVs. This is going to be a social place.”


Although likely a successful business plan, the clean cut hipster bar feel - almost uniform in every establishment that has opened in the last number of years in the city - is a bit of a white wash. 


By design, the old toughness will be replaced by a soft environment more akin to a University campus than the floor of a meatpacking plant.


“There is something about gentrification where you lose the authenticity and grit,” Simons said. 


“I am thrilled and delighted that the building isn’t set for demolition, which was my great fear. Should they get this open as a hipster gastropub, I wish them well and I will come in and eat their gourmet pickled eggs. But it won’t be to the neighbourhood what it was before.


“The gang that used to drink at the Transit will probably not return. It’s not going to have the history. It will be a simulacrum of what was there before, but cities change and evolve and the old Transit had a good run.”



                                                                              - - - 


A renaissance for the area has been in the works for a long time. 


Ever since its glory days, and up until 1997 when the Gainers plant closed (at that time owned by Maple Leaf Foods) the neighbourhood has kind of wallowed in relative despair. 


Once, the Transit Hotel was an oasis for affluent farmers going back and forth. Then, it became a rooming house. Always, it’s been a spot to have a drink.


Looking back at the health records, the Transit was better than other rooming hotels in the city at keeping things pest-free and fit for human habitation. 


Still, living there wasn’t the highlife. 


Simons, reporting for the Journal on urban blight and child poverty, found a focus on a family that made the hotel its home. 


“I walked through the building and thought… this is not a great way for people to be living,” she recalled. “At the same time, there was always something about the bar that I couldn’t help but find… charming isn’t the right word...


“It had a certain kind of vitality. It wasn’t one of those bars where hipster kids and University students would hang out to feel cool. There was nothing inauthentic about it, it was for the neighbourhood.”


At one point while she was dropping by on assignment, a regular sitting silently at the bar swiftly got up out of his seat upon seeing the camera. 


“I’ve got warrants,” he said and dashed out the door. 


Not out of the ordinary for the old Transit. 


“Were there criminals there? Absolutely. Was it a place that had a reputation for a lot of violence? Not really, not compared to some other watering holes of its genre.


"It was a community sanctuary and it really was for me, as someone that is interested in heritage and social history, like a little time capsule of a long ago era.”


Other developments like the widening of Fort Road, new apartment/condo complexes and the like haven’t picked up steam to a point where you could say the area is well on its way to being renewed. But it could be a start. At  least that’s what Simons and Egan both hope. 

“I have been burned before in my failure to moderate my enthusiasm for the renaissance of the area,” Simons said. 

The city has in the past invested a lot of money trying to gentrify a chunk of the city based on its proximity to Light Rail Transit into the downtown.


It invested a lot of money buying land and tearing down largely empty businesses and investing in physical decorative features like the aforementioned billboard gracing the rail overpass, but there was a real challenge in trying to get developers to invest there. 


Egan genuinely hopes that the Transit can be the anchor tenant that can forward the community’s development.


“When the community first started learning about this, some were hesitant and some were excited,” he said. “I think all are hoping that the Transit could be a part of this redevelopment somehow.”


The building does not yet have a historical designation from the city. There's some hesitation on the part of the owner, Egan says. 


"It's something we want, but something the owner really has to take the ball on."


A number of considerations come into play there, including the inability to develop the building further in the future, he said. 


Officially or not, the Transit carries a history with it. 


If you plan on gathering there for a brew when that's possible, think about that for a second. While you munch on some brisket, think of the many animals that came before you in Packingtown.


 


Mike Carter Reporting for Yeg City

Write Mike at mikecarterwrites@gmail.com








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