Large concert hall part of Jag Hotel's 'calculated risk' for expansion

John Steele has plans to expand in downtown St. John's, and to build a new hotel in Halifax.

Steele has plans to expand in downtown St. John's with new music venue, and build a new hotel in Halifax

John Steele says he hopes to start construction on a new hotel in Halifax within the next two to three months. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

Keith Richards's portrait stands behind the Exile Lounge in the Jag Hotel in downtown St. John's. To his right, up higher on the wall, a classically-hatted Tom Petty strums a guitar.

"Jag will always celebrate music as long as I'm in control of it," said John Steele.

He owns the hotel in downtown St. John's, as well as the collection of paintings and posters of rock icons that line Jag's walls.

Steele, whose family sold Newfoundland Capital Corporation — the parent company of Steele Communications — in October for $524 million, runs Steele Hotels, which operates six hotels across the province: one in Corner Brook, three in Gander and two in St. John's.

I think it's a calculated risk that's going to pay off.- John Steele

Now, he wants to replicate his 84-room Jag Hotel at a new spot in Halifax.

"We want to be based here, headquartered here in St. John's, but it's time to try to do in the hotel business what we did in the radio business, by expanding outside of the province," he said.

But it's not just a new hotel in the works: Steele is also planning a large expansion in downtown St. John's, which will include a new 80-room hotel space, a pedway, and a concert hall.

At a time when some are concerned about the future of downtown St. John's, and Newfoundland and Labrador's fiscal situation is less than rosy, Steele said he's in a position where he can look to the future.

Steele is expanding the Jag Hotel across Buchanan Street in St. John's. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

"All things pass — good times, bad times. And I'm fortunate that I'm in the situation that I'm able to move forward to get ready for when the good times roll around again," Steele told CBC's St. John's Morning Show

"There is no doubt that there are challenges in the economy and we have to address some serious systemic issues we have in our economy, and there's no easy fixes."

Steele said there are plenty of changes he imagines could make the province flourish again, but in the meantime, he's moving forward with his own vision.

"I think there could be better opportunity if we made some changes, but I'm ready to go and I'm ready to take the risk," he said. "I think it's a calculated risk that's going to pay off."

New music venue in the works

The Jag Hotel opened in 2014 and now has 84 rooms. Steele recently bought the Gaze Seed, Technip, and the old John Howard Society buildings, all across Buchanan Street from the Jag Hotel.

That's where Steele's new performance hall will go.

With space for around 1,500 people, it's inspired by the Helix multi-purpose venue in Dublin.

"You could have shows in there, dinners, conferences," he said. "It gives us a chance to have high-utilization because it's multi-purpose, but also have a lot of fun."

But there's still a lot of work to be done before it can open, Steele said.

The John Howard Society building, for example, is not structurally sound and is in "very rough shape."

The venue, which Steele hopes to see opened in two and a half years at the latest, would be larger than both the Arts & Culture Centre and the Holy Heart Theatre, but smaller than Mile One.

There would be collapsible, bleacher-style seating, Steele said, which will mean a variety of events could be hosted there.

With Steele's recent acquisition of the airspace over Buchanan Street, people will get there via a pedway built across the road.

"I think this will be a small piece that will help improve the city. There's many things that make a great city and I think we're going to do our little small bit to help make it a better place," he said.

John Steele stands outside the Jag Hotel in downtown St. John's. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Fred Hutton

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