A labour of love for a historic building
As a kid growing up in northeast Edmonton, David Egan used to look out the car window as his parents drove down Fort Road, and his eye would always be caught by the same building: the Transit Hotel. Built in 1908 to accommodate the many travellers between North Edmonton (then its own village) and Fort Saskatchewan, the Transit’s distinctive three-storey wood façade looked like something pulled straight out of the Wild West.
As he grew older, Egan (Chemical Technology ’08) remained fond of the Transit, even as he watched it – as well as much of the surrounding neighbourhood – slowly degrade over the years. When the Transit finally shut its doors in 2017, after more than a century of continuous operation, Egan worried that a north-side icon was in danger of disappearing for good.
The Transit’s three-storey wood façade looked like something out of the Wild West.
In 2019, however, opportunity came knocking. While using the hotel as his campaign headquarters during the provincial election (he once made a run as a UCP candidate in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview), Egan learned that the owner of the Transit was interested in having someone sign a lease to take over the business. He jumped at the chance. Which is how Egan and his business partner, the restaurant owner and real-estate agent Ray Pritlove, have found themselves in the midst of a renovation that will, they hope, bring the Transit Hotel into the 21st century while retaining much of its historic charms.
“This area needs redevelopment,” Egan says during a recent tour of the building. “And for a lot of redevelopments, you need some sort of anchor. We’re hoping we can be one.”
In need of some love
Egan and Pritlove have broken their plans for the Transit down into three stages. First, in a nod to the hotel’s location in a former meatpacking district, is a redevelopment of the main-floor bar into a family-friendly barbecue smokehouse restaurant.
“We want to have smoked briskets piped outside,” Egan says, “to make the whole neighbourhood hungry all day.” At night, the restaurant will convert into a country bar, complete with live music.
Stage two involves more extensive renovations to the main floor, like installing a larger front entrance and replacing a 112-year-old steam radiator – what Egan calls his “nice-to-have list.”
Stage three is an overhaul of the former hotel rooms upstairs, perhaps into a block of student housing (the building is just a few blocks from an LRT station that could easily connect students to several major post-secondaries, NAIT included). Demolition is underway, and they plan to have the first phase complete in time for opening this fall.
There’s no denying that the Transit needs a lot of love, from the outdated kitchen and bathrooms to the wood shavings that currently serve as insulation. Egan knows this better than almost anyone. “We know the overall renovations could go into the seven figures,” he says.
But he’s hopeful that once the surrounding community, not to mention restaurant and history lovers around the city, see what he’s planning to do, they’ll rally to support the hotel’s continued renovation.
“If we do this in steps, folks that give us regular business can see this as investing in their community, too – and they can see that investment paying off, as we contribute more to the revitalization of this building.”
In fact, Egan has been raising awareness and generating community support for more than a year, first through a Facebook page showcasing the history of the Transit (and which currently has more than 2,400 followers), and more recently through a successful Kickstarter campaign.
“We just threw a number out there,” Egan says. “We weren’t sure about what kind of buy in we’d get. We threw $5,000 out there, and within three days we got it.”
For a project of this size and scope, there are many important factors to keep in mind, says Susan Knoop, a NAIT Hospitality Management instructor.
“The big obvious thing is the reputation of the area, and of the hotel itself,” she says. “In the past, the Transit was in a beautiful location. But it became rundown. And the reputation is something that they’re going to have to work on.”
Knoop thinks the new smokehouse restaurant is a clever way to tie into the history of the area, but cautions that incorporating a pub right away could send a mixed signal to customers worried about the hotel’s up-and-down history.
Egan agrees that drawing in patrons from around Edmonton is key. But he doesn’t want to alienate the Transit’s former regulars, either. “We’re not dissuading anybody that was an old patron of this place, who are nostalgic for it,” he says. “It was a social place. That’s what we want to build off of.”
Plus, for a place like the Transit, where the historical element is central to its appeal, he’s also leery of changing the interior too much. “Folks don’t want to see a modern bar that they could see anywhere in the city,” he says. “They want to see something that’s a bit of a throwback.”
As we continue our tour, walking through the soon-to-be expanded dining area, Egan points out that the ambience needs to strike a balance. The VLTs and flickering fluorescent lights are gone, while the original hardwood floors, on the other hand, are being sanded and refinished. (Unfortunately, Egan says that the Transit’s celebrated gerbil races won’t be part of the redesign.)
Kickstarter funds aside, the vast majority of the funding for the project is coming from Egan and Pritlove themselves. “It’s very much grassroots,” Egan says. “None of us is rich, by any means. We’re local guys who want to turn this area around.”
One other possible avenue for funding is if the Transit were to be added to the city’s Inventory of Historic Resources. This would also prevent the building from being demolished any time in the future – Egan’s original fear. But that process has to be instigated by the building’s owner, and both parties want to first make sure the revitalized restaurant/pub proves itself to be sustainable.
“If we can prove that there’s a demand to keep this building here, and maintain some sort of customer base,” Egan says, “that’s when the owner will become excited, I think, to put a significant investment with us into the entire building, and perhaps pursuing historical designation.”
In the meantime, they’re discussing smaller ways of celebrating the area’s history, such as a mural painted on the exterior of the hotel.
Patience in the time of COVID-19
The Transit is an iconic part of Edmonton’s past, appearing in a significant number of the city’s vintage photographs. Yet it plays an important role within the neighbourhood today, too.
“I think the community is waiting to see what will happen to it,” says Deanna Fuhlendorf, executive director of the Fort Road Business and Community Association.
Fuhlendorf notes that there are few structures remaining from the days of North Edmonton, and that the community is committed to preserving and commemorating the pieces that are still here. She hopes that the Transit can be one day restored to its original condition. “It’s a neat old building,” she says.
“It’s a neat old building.”
Of course, the sudden emergence of COVID-19 hasn’t made Egan’s plans any easier. But no matter how project timelines have stretched since work began, he remains grateful in the knowledge that it could have been worse.
“There are a number of restaurants that were ready to open, [but] were not allowed to,” Egan says. “So I guess you could argue that we were lucky that we got some hiccups.” He also knows that the pandemic is far from over, and that a second wave could easily force a redeveloped Transit to shut its doors on a moment’s notice.
Until then, Egan is taking things day by day, focusing on each part of the renovation while also keeping an eye on the long-term picture. He and Pritlove signed a 10-year lease, with the possibility of two five-year extensions. On top of the Transit redevelopment, and his full-time job as a power engineer, Egan also has a newborn at home.
“I hope my son will work here someday,” he says, looking at the well-loved booths that line the Transit’s walls, “and that I can pass it on to him. I hope this can be a shining light to the community.”