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Re-imagined Royal Hotel, destined to be a parking lot, now soon to re-open

By Tom Harrison
While a citizen group continues it fight with the provincial government to save two historic tourism destination homes at Sandbanks, one supporter will soon see his project – a massive transformation from near dereliction – come back to life.

The crumbling east wall of the Royal in 2017. –  James Lowery photo.

In support of the stay of demolition of the Hyatt and MacDonald homes, Picton’s Royal Hotel developer Greg Sorbara last month urged the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to “set aside its plan to demolish, and seek third-party proposals to re-imagine the properties in a way that respects the County’s cultural heritage.”

He pointed many redevelopments in the community, and his family’s project – The Royal on Main Street Picton – which he noted was “difficult to imagine a building in worse shape, and the property was most certainly destined to be torn down for a parking lot”.

Today, the re-construction of Picton’s Royal Hotel is “almost ready to go” said project lead Sol Korngold. At the site, the buzz of saws and ongoing brickwork shows the tremendous effort now being made to finish the building. Korngold, who expects a ‘soft’ opening in December, is looking forward to starting operations following the lengthy renovation.

Korngold describes the modernized Royal as a “lively” space in the heart of downtown Picton. The glazed glass frontage will permit a dynamic view into the interior ground floor. Patrons will enter through main doors to experience three open spaces, including a 40-seat parlour and restaurant/bar, a boutique shop, and a station to provide coffee, and fresh baked goods.

Other hotel features will include a spa, small gym, a meeting room and a rear garden area with a pool that Korngold describes as a “really fun and buzzy space”, with both music and food service.

“We really hope the Royal will be a place for everyone in the community, not just guests,” said Korngold.

Staff recruitment, he said, is under way and will continue for some time. Several positions are posted on the Royal’s website, and he ultimately expects to hire 35 to 40 people, with increases during busier periods. He also notes the kitchen is also almost ready for Chef Albert Ponzo, to begin preparations.

For his part, Ponzo is “really excited” that the Royal’s menu is being finalized. It will feature food that is locally-inspired and seasonally driven. Much of the menu will be Italian themed, with things like pasta and pizza, but there will be a range of options incorporating products from Edwin County Farm in Northport. Ponzo is enthusiastic that the sugarbush on the property will provide a chance to experiment with a range of maple-infused creations.

Sorbara, former Ontario finance minister, whose family bought the Royal Hotel property in 2013, estimates the recent pandemic disruptions slowed construction by four to five months. The delays were the latest in a series of challenges the family met and over came. In 2017 the east wall of the building subsided, causing work to stop while engineers secured the wall to the bedrock.

For the opening, Sorbara notes there are a lot of little things yet to come. All the doors need to be hung, painting finished; and all the materials for a busy hotel, like cutlery and linens, have to be acquired. He notes the second building, the ‘Royal Annex’ located at 6 Ross Street, is just about prepared for cladding, but its completion will take a little longer than the main structure. The Main Street location will feature 28 rooms, while the Annex will have five.

Local historian Peter Lockyer notes the Royal was originally built as a small-town railway hotel after Picton was linked to the wider world by train in the late 1800s.

He describes that in its early days, anyone who had to do business in town, or who sought a little luxury, stayed at the Royal. Rare for its time, guests could enjoy private baths in a space that owners boasted was a ‘Home away from Home’.

Though its fortunes waxed and waned, for more than 140 years the building has remained an important part of County history. The place was bought by long-time Mayor Harvey McFarland in 1953, and even enjoyed a brief visit from American politician Richard Nixon in 1957.

When told that then vice-president Nixon once stopped at the hotel for a cool drink, current proprietor Greg Sorbara laughs.

“If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have bought it,” he jokes.

Changing ownership and the loss of the local rail station meant declining fortunes for the hotel by the 1970s and 80s. The place finally closed more than a decade ago and became derelict.

Lockyer praises the current project which he considers as a model of what can be done to preserve local history. The new owners, he said, show a “personal commitment to heritage”, while at the same time are making “a bet on the future.” In reflecting about all the County has to offer, Lockyer adds “it’s a good bet.”

As the Royal readies for its re-birth, Sorbara is happy and grateful for the community’s backing of the project.

“As we come to the end of the journey, we are so appreciative of the support we’ve received from the people of the County.” He pauses to add, “our family is deeply engaged in Prince Edward,” noting their work to renew the downtown Picton landmark has become a “matter of pride.”

The Royal Hotel, Picton, 1910

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  1. Bruce Nicholson says:

    A time to celebrate !
    Thank you Greg Sorbara !
    Let’s stop hearing the pessimism .

  2. David Thomas says:

    I can’t begin to imagine the headaches involved in permitting and restoring the Royal. Kudos to the Sorbara family for tackling such a challenging, expensive project. Instead of being demolished and sent to a landfill, an important part of Picton’s heritage has been saved, for many to enjoy in the years to come. Just like green space, when old buildings are torn down they are gone forever. I still can’t believe nobody stepped up to save the church.

  3. SM says:

    Of course tourists will frequent this place. After all it is a HOTEL! Seems to me that is why people build those things.

  4. Dennis Fox says:

    I too look forward to its opening, I am sure once it is up and running that it will be a real plus for the downtown. The lack of parking is already a problem – the new Royal will only make it worse. I doubt that many locals will frequent it – I suspect the hotel, and the associated shops and businesses will be priced for the tourist market. It will not be the place to go for the average person – not like the old Royal once was. Sad in some ways.

  5. Chris Keen says:

    It is truly a magnificent restoration. Mr. Sorbara can be very proud at what has been accomplished.

    I’m trying to picture where the 28 cars belonging to the visitors, and the 35-40 cars belonging to staff are going to park. At the time this development was proposed I don’t remember this being resolved other than mention of an off-site lot that held a few guests’ cars.

  6. x-PEC says:

    The Royal was the most important low-income housing in Picton. From there, residents had easy access to grocery stores and all sorts of social supports.

  7. Emily says:

    Give credit where credit is due especially with the obstacles and hurdles that were overcome.

  8. Robert Lafosse says:

    Wow – that only took 10 years.

  9. Dee says:

    Sorbara walked the talk… he invested in a heritage property and respected that it was a part of our cultural heritage. Now he has stepped forward and supported the effort to save and repurpose the heritage Sandbanks homes. He has proven he is engaged with what is important to the Prince Edward County community…our identity.

    In his letter to Minister of MECP he highlighted other heritage repurposing projects in the County…the Merrill Inn, the Manse Inn and Spa, the Drake Devonshire, the Downe House, The Cape….and their are so many more. The saving of the Hillier Church that was to be torn down and was purchased by McLean at Closson Chase and moved.. the many other heritage barns converted to wineries, homes, art galleries and B&B retreats. Let us not forget one of the originals…The Waring House!

    Like Sorbara many investors have recognized the special value of heritage properties- some large refurbishments and others less extensive.

    Its time we asked our municipal leaders to take some of that money they get from selling off County property and put it in a fund to support saving our county’s cultural heritage and our identity before it gets lost under land fill or cement blocks.

    GO GREG!

  10. Dan says:

    Thanks for seeing this project through Greg. I can’t imagine how much you have invested at this point. One thought however: many businesses start with the premise that ‘everyone is welcome’ but over time this principle falls by the wayside. It would be nice if some sustained effort was made in this regard. Some people see projects like yours as a sign of being alienated from their own community. You have the opportunity to fight that narrative. All the best to you and the staff.

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