Modest Port Hardy Inn becoming luxury hotel with First Nations theme

Every inch of the modest Port Hardy Inn is being renovated through the winter to transform it into a luxury First Nations themed hotel featuring a traditional big house-inspired design.

It will emerge in late spring as the Kwa’lilas Hotel, meaning a place to sleep, offering First Nations experiences, art and improved amenities.

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“What we are doing in Port Hardy is a piece to the overall puzzle of our economic development that the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation started about five years ago,” said Conrad Browne, CEO of the band’s K’awat’si Economic Development Corp.

A community economic development plan identified tourism potential, Browne said Friday from Port Hardy, on northeast Vancouver Island.

The band has 960 members, including 260 younger than 12 years old, he said.

With that in mind, the Kwa’lilas Hotel will deliver training and employment opportunities to band members now and in the future, Browne said. It will have more than 40 full-time employees, plus others providing services such as drum-making, story-telling experiences and language classes.

Outdoor nature-based experience, such as riding fast tidal rapids, will also be offered.

It’s hoped that the hotel will help revitalize the northern part of Vancouver Island.

The band bought the hotel this year for about $1 million. Immediately, $350,000 was spent on necessary upgrading, such as new beds and linens, Browne said. Another $3.5 million will be spent on the winter construction and improvements, he said.

A marketing plan aims to attract international and domestic visitors. Marketing will be done in conjunction with aboriginal tourism organizations.

The hotel is closing in November for the renovation.

Clean lines, plenty of cedar, large beams and a smoke-hole in the roof will all evoke its First Nation ownership, Browne said.

During the temporary closing, Port Hardy Inn bookings will be honoured at the nearby Seagate Hotel. The 55-room, mid-range hotel was also recently purchased by the band. It will be called Pier Side Landing and is currently being renovated.

The Port Hardy Inn’s 60-seat pub is staying open during construction and will be converted into a lounge. Seto’s restaurant is leased and will also continue to operate. The menu will be expanded to include traditional First Nations food such as salmon and bannock.

When the Kwa’lilas Hotel opens, all guest and meeting rooms will feature an aboriginal motif, said Scott Roberts, an associate of Mizare Hospitality, which is helping with the overhaul. A group of elders will decide the art from band members that will be displayed and sold in a boutique.

Along with a complete renovation of its 85 rooms, including two executive suites, another 4,000 square feet of conference centre space will be upgraded for corporate and special events. It is well-located for First Nations conferences, Roberts said.

An unused pool will be redone and a fitness centre is being added, Browne said.

The project’s team of architects, designers and artists include Malcolm McSporran of Quinkatla Development Planning Inc., Tohmm Cobban and Judy Henderson of Inside Design Studios and Shain Jackson of Spirit Works Ltd.

Hotels are just one part of the band’s economic development plans. It has spent $2.2 million on a new cold storage facility of about 30,000 square feet to serve seafood processors, Browne said.

The band also has a shellfish aquaculture pilot project underway.

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