The Union Bank Inn has been sold to a local entrepreneur who is hoping to revitalize and bring new energy to the historic building, which has been a fixture on Jasper Avenue since 1911.
"The idea is to honour its history, really pull out the roots of what the Union Bank was," said Henok Kassaye, the new owner, who is taking over a business that's been closed for the majority of the pandemic.
In the early 1900s, the Union Bank of Canada building was one of 10 banks on Jasper Avenue between 100 and 101 Street — now it is the last bank building still standing of the pre-1914 era on Jasper Avenue. It was restored by Diane Kyle-Buchanan in 1997 and re-opened as the Union Bank Inn.
Kassaye hopes that focusing on the building's origins, including using the back parking lot for events and bringing back programming, will help to re-activate downtown Edmonton by drawing in a new generation with "fun concepts while still respecting what makes sense."
"I'm obsessed with Edmonton and I think our historic inventory or our old buildings are something that should be kept, redone, and revitalized, but also there's this new energy that Edmontonians have, that I want to be a part of," said Kassaye, who attended MacEwan University and is the founder of Turnip Smart Home Security.
In terms of hospitality, Kassaye wants to add a wine bar and an "old school pub" to the Union Bank Inn. A modernized restaurant will replace Madison's Grill, with "fun cocktails and some fantastic chefs who are going to come in and really blow Edmonton out of the water."
He also plans to do a "gentle renovation" to the rooms, making small changes like updating fireplaces and adding smart TVs.
"You'll see new modern rooms with the old shell that's kept such a beautiful name all these years," Kassaye said. "You will still see the Union Bank and it will still be the Union Bank Inn when you go in there."
Kassaye said he bought the Union Bank Inn along with three other properties: the Scona Garage off Whyte Avenue, the Harvest International building on 109 Street, and 10507 Saskatchewan Drive (the former Incite marketing building). All four were listed by Omada Commercial.
The deal closed at the end of January and is worth just over $19 million, Kassaye told Taproot. The Union Bank Inn accounted for about $5.9 million of the overall sale.
As for the future of the other three buildings, the Harvest International building will remain largely the same as the Bill Rees YMCA is based there (the Edmonton region and home office)
Kassaye envisions bringing a micro-hotel to the upstairs of the Scona Garage, a historic building in Old Strathcona that Beljan Development was in the process of transforming into a retail and hotel space. Kassaye's plans for the building include 20 suites, with food and beverage on the main floor, aiming to "really capture what Whyte Avenue will be 12 to 18 months from now."
As for 10507 Saskatchewan Drive, he sees it as a potential tower site in the future.
"It's probably the best four corners in our city, north-facing Saskatchewan Drive. I don't want to scare anybody, but I think it would be a cool high-rise one day if I could afford it. But that's down the road," Kassaye said.
Before Kassaye tackles those plans, he's focused on getting the Union Bank Inn ready to open. Currently, he has his sights set on this summer, but if that isn't possible, he'll look at opening in phases.
And he's confident he's made the right choice to invest in the Union Bank Inn.
"This place means a lot to everyone," Kassaye said, sharing that in the process of closing, he met a woman who worked there, a man whose son got married there, and others who loved to visit.
"It was everybody's first date spot," he laughed. "I went there on a first date when I was like 20.
"I'm really taking this job seriously and I'm really excited about it ... the responsibility of this place. Everyone has been there and has a story."