Part 5: Scars left on a city
The Prince Edward Hotel at 100
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/06/2012 (3996 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At the time it happened, it was perhaps reasonable to assume that knocking down the Prince Edward Hotel was just the first step on the way to something bigger and better.
Many Brandon residents lamented the fact that the city couldn’t find the money to turn the hotel into a library and arts centre. Many more signed petitions and donated money to try to save the building — for any purpose — once it became clear it was headed for demolition.
But a growing number felt that the time to save the Prince Edward was past. With the heat off, the concrete crumbling, the vaunted fixtures long-since auctioned off, they felt that the hotel was too far gone.
And there had always been a solid core of people who felt that the hotel was not just past its prime, that the building itself had never been worth saving. Sure, it was old, but in their view, that wasn’t a good thing.
Brandon was experiencing a building boom in the late 1970s and early ’80s — somewhat parallelling the early 1900s, when the Prince Edward Hotel had been built. A brand-new downtown shopping mall, the Brandon Gallery, was expected to catalyze retail shopping in the core area. Scotia Towers and the Brandon University science building were big new additions to the city’s skyline.
A new city hall had been built in a deliberately stark, new, modern style. A brand-new provincial building was next down the street —both on property that had once been railway tracks leading to the Prince Edward.
But the time of the railroad — and the railroad hotel — were deemed to be past.
And many Brandon residents believed that after the hotel was out of the way — even the man in charge of trying to sell it called it “old and obsolete” — something new, and by definition better, would rise.
So, among the crowds of people who watched, curiously, as a wrecking ball slammed into the historic facade, or who grouped themselves behind barricades for the dynamite spectacle of implosion, a significant number were nodding their heads in approval. Now, they must have thought, we can really do something with this space.
And, in fact, the city, which now owned the lot, wasted no time in putting the property to at least some use.
Within weeks of the demolition being all cleaned up, city council decided that while they waited for a shiny new commercial development, they could at least collect quarters on the site, and voted to spend $4,000 to turn it into a gravel parking lot.
The 150-stall lot was left gravel, deliberately not paved, with the expectation that it would soon be transformed into something else.
The parking lot was “a short-term solution,” said then-mayor Ken Burgess, but a good solution.
Parking, it was believed, was necessary to ensure that people would continue to shop downtown.
In fact, the land’s use for parked cars was perceived to be so valuable that a Brandon real estate firm offered the city $200,000 on the spot — so it could stay a parking lot.
Joe Perry, manager of Hughes and Company Ltd, told city council that the parking spaces were required for two other downtown developments that the firm was planning.
Burgess wasn’t convinced. The property was increasing in value every day, he said, as the new downtown mall got closer and closer to completion. And then-alderman Rick Borotsik said he was against the Prince Edward lot being a permanent parking lot, although he added that Hughes and Company’s other promised downtown developments — contingent on having enough parking — certainly “sweetened the deal.”
Perry, disappointed, said he couldn’t blame the city for trying to get the best price possible, but hoped they would hurry up.
His was just the first of several quick bids for the property.
That September, Greyhound said that the vacant lot looked appealing for a new bus terminal. It would have been a short move sideways for the company — their existing terminal was just two blocks down at 11th Street and Princess Avenue — but their $300,000 bid was rejected.
Although some councillors thought the money was enough to recoup their owed taxes and the money they’d spent demolishing the hotel, others thought the vacant lot was worth more — a lot more — and it could possibly be sold for half a million within a year.
Other ideas for the lot began to pop up — a new hotel, a convention centre, even a new police station.
City council also entertained offers from the Oddfellows Lodge No. 6 and from area Lions Clubs, who each wanted to use the land to build seniors housing — multimillion-dollar high-rise complexes.
The Lions’ $5-million plan, for example, envisioned 108 housing units, with commercial development like a small grocery and hair salon on the main floor. They offered $75,000 for the lot (more than the Oddfellows had), and indicated a willingness to go even higher.
Some of the projected numbers sounded promising. The seniors’ residence would bring in about $55,000 in tax revenue every year — more than twice what the land was making as a parking lot.
But councillors felt they should still hold out for a commercial development. After all, commercial development might bring in the city $75,000 every year — and a privately owned apartment complex could generate as much as $120,000 in annual tax revenue, estimated Keith Timmons, the city’s property administrator.
Money wasn’t the only issue, however. Timmons warned that the valuable parking spaces lost to the Lions development would have to be replaced somewhere.
Council rejected the Lions proposal, as they had rejected the Oddfellows.
Perry, who had wanted to buy the lot in the first place, was incensed. Maybe they hadn’t sold the lot to him, but they could at least get off their hands and do something with it, he said.
“Developers … are being discouraged and held back by city council’s inefficiencies and short-sightedness,” he wrote in a scathing letter to the editor. “Mismanagement and stonewalling on the part of this present council has been damaging to this city.”
Sun editorial writers also chimed in, pointing out that there was no shortage of vacant lots for commercial development along Rosser Avenue, and that builders should be encouraged to erect high-rise residences nearby — say, along Princess Avenue.
The city, perhaps chastened, called for tenders on the property. But the Lions were the only party that expressed an interest — doubling their offer to $150,000 and once again saying the price could be negotiated.
Once more, the city turned them down. Burgess reiterated that any offer should at least compensate the city for the $194,000 it had spent to demolish the hotel four years earlier and suggested a price closer to $250,000.
It was too much for the Lions, who said that cost would be “a burden.”
Although a couple of years earlier, council had turned down a $300,000 offer, hoping they could sell the lot for a half million dollars or more, suddenly no one seemed interested in putting up even a quarter million.
In fact, over the next decade, the site dropped completely off the development radar. The city put out one last set of feelers for development proposals in late 1985, but again, nothing came of it.
Then, as part of an effort to improve the image of downtown, including new limestone gateways at First and Princess, and at 18th and Rosser (a third was proposed for 10th and Victoria), council voted to permanently pave the lot in 1987 — a move that seemed to signal the parking lot was at least semi-permanent.
The next year, a new downtown organization, the Downtown Brandon Business Improvement Area, or BIA, was formed. It adopted parking as a major focus of its efforts, and the lot at the former Prince Edward Hotel was believed to be an asset in attracting shoppers downtown.
Over the next decade, landscaping and upgrading of the Prince Edward parking lot would be discussed often, but no redevelopment proposals came forward.
By the late ’90s, though, something changed: People got nostalgic. A major new capital project at neighbouring Princess Park was unveiled — a new fountain and performance stage. Both, as it turned out, would be partially constructed using saved limestone blocks from the Prince Edward Hotel.
Its name began to ring out in newspaper articles and letters to the editor. It hadn’t been this popular since its demolition.
The reason? An ongoing tussle over the future of the vacant Brandon Mental Health Centre on the North Hill.
Some felt that a casino up there would help pay for the historic buildings’ restoration. And one study proposed a residential development.
They were also being touted as a possible home for a growing Assiniboine Community College.
The BMHC buildings had been built at about the same time as the Prince Edward Hotel, and many drew an explicit comparison between the two — excoriating the city for its failure in the 1970s, and urging elected officials to step in and save BMHC.
“The naysayers speak of expensive upgrading. Sure it’s scary, it’s a challenge. The Prince Edward Hotel was lost with that argument,” wrote Douglas Brolund in a letter dripping with scorn. “Drive by the site some time and see the ‘improvements.’”
But a familiar chorus was saying that BMHC wasn’t worth saving, and the buildings were too old, in too much disrepair, to save.
“We shouldn’t be pressured to save these buildings by the vocal minority with big dreams that they can’t pay for,” wrote Mike Burgess in a letter to the editor. “Although the buildings are very nice, they have served their purpose. It is time to cut our losses, knock them down, sell the land and begin to collect revenue from land taxes.”
But even Burgess made a nod in the hotel’s direction.
“We as a community have learned our lesson regarding the Prince Edward Hotel and made great strides in recent years to preserve heritage buildings in Brandon,” his letter continued. “Let’s not let feelings of regret (Prince Eddy) cloud our judgment.”
In the end, ACC made a partial move into refurbished buildings at BMHC, although there are still vacant buildings awaiting development.
Meanwhile, problems were cropping up downtown. Despite early success, retailers were beginning to pull out of the Brandon Gallery, and the area was once again thought to be in decline.
Eaton’s and Shoppers Drug Mart left as the mall lost half of its small retail tenants.
It was a stumble that had obvious repercussions for nearby properties — including the parking lot at Ninth and Princess. After all, the mall was supposed to have been a commercial anchor, ensuring that the nearby Prince Edward Hotel lot would inevitably increase in value.
Thoughts of developing the parking lot faded.
But then, in 2006, a group of skateboarders approached city hall with their eyes on the spot. The group had for years been trying to find land for a new skateboard park, but opposition from nearby residents had taken a 26th Street location off the table, and only a small park had been built, in an out-of-the-way location near the riverbank.
City council, however, had set aside money to seed the project, if an appropriate location could be found, and this time the skateboarders had enlisted some high-level supporters.
Then-councillor Vince Barletta, whose Rosser Ward included the proposed site, was an early supporter. Marlow Kirton, then managing partner of The Town Centre, was also on board as a committee member.
And it didn’t hurt that skateboarding shop Senate Skates was earning a reputation as a solid corporate citizen in Brandon.
Council demurred at first — then-Assiniboine Ward councillor Doug Paterson thought the $400,000 budget for the park sounded “a bit rich” for a city of Brandon’s size — but eventually ponied up for an architectural study.
A year later, plans were unveiled to great fanfare. And, in a nod to the lot it was occupying, the proposed plaza was designed to emulate and honour the Prince Edward Hotel.
“We have a great deal of respect for the heritage of the site,” Kirton told the Sun, showing how steel trellises would emulate the look of the railway hotel, and how different areas of the skateboard plaza would bear names referencing classic locations in the building.
Of course, not everyone was supportive.
“I’m very much in favour of a skateboard park … (but) I think it’s absolutely the wrong place for it.” said downtown developer John Laurence, adding that the site would be better used for commercial development or for parking.
Plans for the park, designed by Scatliff+Miller+Murray, of Winnipeg, moved forward. The price tag had inflated to an estimated price tag of $600,000 — and it would eventually cost more than $1 million.
But just two years later, with little controversy, most of the funding was in place, and a team of city dignitaries grabbed skateboard decks for a 2009 groundbreaking ceremony.
Work on the plaza proper — named after Kristopher Campbell, a Brandon teenager and skateboarder who had been killed in a car accident — began in 2010, and the park officially opened later that year.
A funding breakdown published at the time of the groundbreaking shows the remarkable about-face that city council made on valuing the property.
Where once an intransigent city hall had turned down offers of $200,000 and $300,000 — holding out for half a million, with big tax revenues, too — when it came to a skateboard plaza, the land was given away for nothing.
Not only did the land come free, the city of Brandon also funded thousands of dollars worth of feasibility studies. The city also provided some $125,000 in the project’s early stages and its arms-length downtown development organization, Renaissance Brandon, chipped in an additional $75,000.
The fact that the city was paying out cash for a skateboard facility, rather than receiving tax revenue from a development has not escaped local politicians.
“It’s a dilemma, and it happens all the time,” says Mayor Shari Decter Hirst. “But rarely do mayors have the luxury of being idealists. … I’m just glad that it’s full of life.”
“It’s a bit bittersweet,” agrees Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell, whose downtown office is nearby.
“It’s not a cairn, which would be a travesty, frankly. At least this celebrates that at that spot, where these kids are enjoying a great sport, stood a monumental building that defined this community for more than half a century.”
Both say they are now focused on future heritage sites — the Brandon Inn, the downtown fire hall, First Baptist Church, the Strand Theatre and additional buildings at the former Brandon Mental Health Centre site.
Meanwhile, other private interests are beginning to show an interest in long-neglected buildings like the CP rail station at the foot of 10th Street, the McKenzie Seeds building, soon to be condominiums, the former MTS building on Ninth Street, as well as ongoing efforts at the Dome Building.
In the discussions about all of them, though, memories of the Prince Edward Hotel — and its fate — cast a long shadow.