Inner-city hotel to be transformed into wellness centre
A notorious inner-city hotel long plagued by violence is undergoing a transformation that will include a walk-in medical clinic and a drop-in centre for families in need.
Three investors formally took ownership of the Balmoral Hotel — and the beer vendor on the same lot — Nov. 1. The hotel at 621 Balmoral St., will be gutted from the inside out and renamed Pimicikamak Wellness Centre, complete with a medical clinic, pharmacy, daycare centre, bus depot and non-profit organization 1JustCity providing free meals and wellness programming in the basement. The beer vendor will be turned into a walk-in clinic.
The 44 existing hotel rooms, which are primarily used by residents of northern First Nations making medical visits to Winnipeg, will be renovated. The plan is to offer transportation to and from medical appointments.
Pimicikamak Cree Nation entrepreneur Kam Khaira and Winnipeg psychiatrist Dr. Antonio Paletta, who purchased the property after it went up for sale earlier this year, have invested equally.
“We’ve already shut down the lounge, the VLTs have been removed, the beer vendor is being wound down and we’re going to have, essentially, a business in the area that’s going to be providing medical services,” Paletta told the Free Press Monday.
Renovations on the basement have begun, with 1JustCity set to be in place in January. The full transformation is expected to be complete by the end of 2024.
Police have investigated several violent incidents at and around the hotel in recent years, including a double stabbing in September, described as a confrontation involving two men who had exited a lounge on the 600 block of Balmoral Street.
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Paletta grew up and did his medical residency in the area, and called the investment a responsibility to a vibrant neighbourhood that had treated him and his family well over the years.
“There’s lots of potential for really good things to happen there and the people of that area deserve it, the same as every other area deserves it,” he said.
“And, hopefully, changing the business on our site will provide people with a bit of peace of mind, a bit more comfort.”
The 1JustCity organization, which serves free meals and hosts wellness programming at three drop-in centres across Winnipeg, will be moving its West End site to the hotel’s basement on a 15-year lease after being approached by Paletta in September.
“We’re going to have tons more space for programming, an office space and storage, a huge, newly equipped commercial kitchen — we’re going to have it all,” Josh Ward, 1Just-City’s West End drop-in site lead, said Monday.
“And what’s important about this is that over the past couple of years, really beginning with the pandemic, we’re seeing three times as many people as we as we did just a couple of years ago, and the need seems to be getting greater, not getting smaller. So to be able to respond to that need is something that we’re very excited for.”
The hotel’s bar, once named Club Fantasy, featuring strippers, will be replaced with space for full-day programming during the week, including a drumming group, bannock breakfasts, access to showers and public health nurses and bingo both in English and Indigenous languages.
The 1JustCity West End drop-in was originally located in the WestEnd Commons on St. Matthews Avenue. The organization quickly outgrew the space, and its programming was temporarily being held at one of 1JustCity’s other locations at 222 Furby St., during the search for a new home, Ward said.
The new space is a “miracle,” he said.
“I have had people ask me — guests and volunteers — ‘Is this place going to be safe?’ And I think we’re going to make it safe,” he said.
“I think having the bar and the beer vendor closed down is going to be a huge step. It has a reputation now, and it can be a scary part of town, but we’re going make it better.”
It’s a welcome change and an opportunity for people in the area. The hotel is central to several neighbourhoods with low-income families, many of them newcomers, who remain somewhat neglected, said community advocate Mitch Bourbonniere.
“To have a chance to repurpose a place that’s previously had kind of a negative reputation, or a negative connotation on a neighbourhood, to repurpose it into something positive, I think is good for everybody,” he said.
At 1JustCity, the number of visitors tripled from about 50 to 150 people every day post-pandemic and hasn’t slowed since. Addressing that kind of spike in the need for services requires support from various sectors in society, including business owners, Bourbonniere said.
“It’s important for business owners and especially business owners of places that have had maybe a more challenging impact on the community, to change the narrative, to kind of give back and help the community by repurposing their facilities,” he said.
“I think it’s a really great gesture by the Balmoral Hotel.”
City of Winnipeg property assessment notices from 2022-24 list the property’s value in excess of $3 million.
The Balmoral Hotel’s beer vendor is slated to become a walk-in medical clinic.
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS