New owner of Royal Albert Arms isn't ruling out reviving famed music venue

The new owner of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel says he likes the 104-year-old heritage building just the way it is and isn’t planning on making many major changes before it reopens.

Neil Soorsma says restaurant at heritage property could be open within months

Neil Soorsma, who bought the Royal Albert Arms at auction says he isn't going to change much about the historic building and may even reopen the hotel's famed music venue. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The new owner of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel says he likes the 104-year-old heritage building just the way it is and isn't planning on making many major changes before it reopens.

But when it opens — and if the reopening will include the hotel's beloved and notoriously loud live-music venue — remains up in the air, Neil Soorsma says.

"We'll have to see where that goes," he told CBC News Thursday, when asked if the hotel would ever shake with the sound of rock music again. "But having been there as a young man, I'd very much like to see it go back to being [a live venue].

"I think it would be good for the Exchange area to have that sort of an attraction in there."

Soorsma bought the property at auction about a month ago, something he says he hadn't really planned on doing before finding out about the opportunity a few days before the auction.

"It's come as a bit of a surprise that I own it," he said, with a laugh.

The 53-room property is best known for the main-floor indie-rock venue that operated from the 1980s into the early 2000s. The building was completed in 1913, and has been serving as low-income housing, even though it's only zoned for use as a hotel.

Winnipeg's Royal Albert Arms, a heritage property located one block from Portage and Main, is up for a mortgage auction next month in what downtown development officials hope will be a prelude to its redevelopment. 2:03

In 2007, pharmacist Daren Jorgenson purchased the Albert and declared his intention to convert the property into a boutique hotel. But the hotel was shuttered in 2011 by a water leak, leading Jorgenson to partner with the late Ray Rybachuk in order to reopen the building.

Rybachuk, who had ties to organized crime, died while snowmobiling in 2013. Jorgenson now says he regrets the partnership and expressed hope the hotel will be redeveloped.

Performances by bands such as Husker Du and Green Day lent the Albert legendary status in music circles. But the hotel also became infamous for violent crimes, including a grisly homicide scene where jewelry stolen from actor Susan Sarandon turned up.

'That's the charm of it'

Soorsma says despite everything the property has been through over the years, it's "basically as it was in its heyday".

"The interior of the bar is remarkably similar," he said. "I was there when I was young myself, so I have a good recollection of it and it's very much the same."

He says the building — including the restaurant's kitchen — is in good condition.

"There's some deferred maintenance issues, no doubt, but overall, surprisingly, it's in pretty good shape."

Soorsma says he isn't concerned about trying to develop a building with heritage status.

"I don't think it's going to be a big issue because we don't plan on changing it — I like it the way it is," he said, adding he is working with Heritage Winnipeg to remove steel front doors that were added over the years. "There's no need to modernize things that are heritage, because that's the charm of it."

'Very good interest' from some potential restaurants

While he isn't exactly sure how long it'll take to get the building open, Soorsma does say he's had "very good interest" from "some well-known restaurants" looking at opening up in the hotel's restaurant space.

"I'm not at liberty to say right now because we haven't come to final terms, but I think people will be very pleased if it comes through."

He's hopeful the restaurant can be reopened by May or June.

CentreVenture president and CEO Angela Mathieson is looking forward to the revitalization of the block of Albert Street between McDermot Avenue and Notre Dame Avenue. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

CentreVenture president and CEO Angela Mathieson has previously told CBC News she's looking forward to the revitalization of the block of Albert Street between McDermot Avenue and Notre Dame Avenue, calling it "one of our most important tourism assets in the city."

Soorsma hopes the reopening of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel will help to spur that revitalization.

"My recollection of that area is, that it was a draw and people would go there because it a good area to be and it had a good atmosphere," he said. "I'd like to see that reestablished, I think it would be good for that part of the city and I think it would tie in nicely in the summer with all the festivals."

With files from Bartley Kives

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