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The Grand Union Hotel tour

New manager refutes calls the historic building should be condemned

ATHABASCA – The Grand Union Hotel in Athabasca has long been the centre of the community — a place to grab a bite, meet friends, have a drink, and if necessary, spend a night or two. It was alive, and vibrant. Today, when you walk into the lobby, there is some dust, it is dark in the saloon and the VLTs sit like monuments on Easter Island, patiently waiting to be brought back to life. And it is quiet, no noise from a radio or TV. But the bones of the building are good. 

The heart is good too. 

Since Wayne Nelson took over as manager of the building in February, he has been working tirelessly to get the iconic building operational again, while at the same time, allowing some who are less fortunate to take shelter there. 

“I worked for the carnival for five years; I traveled all over this country and the places were interesting enough, but the most amazing thing to me was to realize it's not the geographical places, it’s people. That's my world – people. I like people and I do my best to try and be like I said, a decent human being and mindful of everything, because the little things matter too,” Nelson said, as he provided a tour of the interior of the 107-year-old building to the Advocate June 17. 

The original Grand Union Hotel was built in 1903 and then rebuilt in 1913 after a devastating fire. It rose from the ashes like a phoenix and now Nelson hopes to bring it to life once again. 

Nelson will talk a bit about his own past, the addiction he conquered, and how his half-century of life has made him care deeply about the homeless. He is angry that there is nowhere for these displaced people to go and while he allows a handful to stay, he knows they cannot live there forever. 

The Grand Union Hotel is, after all, a business, and while generously allowing people to take shelter for days, weeks and even months at a time, it has caused a setback in getting the business operating again. 

As you climb the wide staircase to the second floor your nose picks up an odour of urine mixed with cannabis. A man quietly says hello as you pass his room. Right now, the third floor has been cleaned up with some rooms ready to rent. The second floor, where the few displaced people who are allowed to remain, still needs a lot of work; a smashed microwave in one room and an abandoned TV and other debris cluttering the end of the hall and the bulk of the physical damage. 

Rooms where the homeless have stayed have various levels of damage done to them; holes, graffiti and poetry scrawled across the walls. 

Nelson points to some of the artwork done in one room over the course of three months saying the woman who did it was “tweaking” while she decorated the walls with flowers, poetry and other images. 

“We're cleaning everyone out of the hotel. You could see the damages … from these people being here,” Nelson said. “And when I say these people, I mean the other human beings that inhabit this community along with everybody else. I don't make distinctions and I don't judge.” 

When Nelson took over, there were three people staying at the hotel who were considered staff, either paid or working off their rent. There were also a dozen squatters, most living on emergency funding from the Alberta government or AISH. As he encouraged them to move out another issue arose, people inside the building letting others back in. He also does not like the term “squatter.” 

“Squatters is implying there were people in and out of the building and to put an actual number that stay every night would be misleading because somebody might come here and be here for a few days. The boarded-up windows outside of the building (is) because these people were gaining entry by opening the windows and in most cases, the people who were opening the windows and the fire escapes were people who lived inside the building,” he said. 

Between the pandemic and the company being defrauded by at least $5,000, Nelson’s boss – who leases the building from the owner – was ready to walk away, but Nelson is sure he can bring the iconic structure back, if not completely back to its former glory, as close as he can with the limited resources he has at his disposal. 

That cannot happen as long as the homeless need a place to stay however, because Nelson refuses to cast them aside, even as they write graffiti on the walls in the hotel rooms and install crude security devices like a wooden block nailed to the floor just inside the room. It is to trip anyone who tries to sneak in while the occupant is sleeping. 

“So, what we've essentially done over the course of the last month is make eight people homeless definitively and another three that are in and out of the building,” he said. “They come here when it's (bad weather) and they can't sleep outside, but there's a need in this town. We're the only ones that have the facility to meet that need but it's not our current model. The current model for how this is done is just not working. The costs are downloaded onto us and at this point with COVID and this place being closed our income stream is stretched to the very limit.” 

Nelson would like to start facilitating something in concert with other agencies in town to provide emergency housing in Athabasca and to do that he is going to need the support of the community and the agencies involved. He promised that the conversation is going to be started soon. 

“Part of the issue I'm having with what needs to be done in this town is what you would call NIMBY (not in my back yard). This phenomenon irks me in every possible way. I would like to knock it down and step on it. I really would because essentially, it's selfish, self-serving and my vision of a community is people sharing, not shunning,” Nelson said. 

“(Addiction) is a problem that is far more pervasive than I think a lot of people would like to admit right now. I recognize it for what it is, and I think I can help facilitate the getting together of the agencies and the marshaling of the resources that need to be put into it, I'm willing to be part of that, my boss is willing to be part of that, but the present way that this is happening it's too much for us.” 

He added he is angry enough and passionate enough about the issue to consider running for town council. 

“If this keeps going the way it's going, and I'm still around, I may very well throw my hat in for the town council. I plan on upsetting a few apple carts. I like knocking the wheels off people's sense of complacency.” 

Nelson envisions the Union as being the centre of the community; a gathering place with jam sessions and bands every weekend and early morning hours for the restaurant. 

“I play guitar; I'd like to be on stage with the jammers when they come on jam night. The restaurant, I plan on opening at five o'clock in the morning, because I see a need and that's essentially because I don't want to so much compete with the businesses in town, I want to complement the businesses in town,” he said. 

“We're hoping to have the restaurant and the bar open by the end of the month. I can say the bar for certain by the end of the month, that's more or less just waiting for AGLC. But I have some licensing requirements and sanitation issues that need to be addressed. The restaurant, hopefully at about the same time. I want to gussy this place up for Canada Day.” 

The kitchen is in the process of being totally gutted out and cleaned up, but they have issues with the roof over the kitchen that need to be addressed. 

“I've had several meetings with an Alberta Health Services representative in the building. There was never any issue that was going to condemn us. They said, here's what we suggest and we were actually starting to get it going and then COVID came along and kicked everybody in the teeth,” Nelson said, refuting a recent comment to town council that the Union should be condemned. 

For now, Nelson will keep watch on the homeless and help them as much as he can. When asked if it was fair to say he would not be evicting the last few homeless people until he found a place for them to go, he agreed that was true, as long as it did not take years. 

“It can't be (years). Change has to happen,” Nelson emphasized. “And actually, that's one of the things I impressed on some of the people that used to live here; I don't care what you do, but do something. I’ve convinced three people to get clean since I got here. I didn’t convince them; I facilitated their making their own choice. 

“I don't and cannot speak to the way the building was run before. I'm doing things differently. I think a little outside the box.” 

Heather Stocking,
Follow me on Twitter @HLSox