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Bed and Breakfast - The Historic Auberge Mcgee Inn (part I)

Submitted by Sarah Fisher | RSS Feed | Add Comment | Bookmark Me! print

During my assignment here in Ottawa to cover the Tulip Festival I am staying in one of my favourite types of accommodation: a bed and breakfast. Not only will you ever see two B&B properties that are the same, the story of every bed and breakfast owner is unique as well. The historic McGee's Inn is located just steps away from the Rideau Canal, the ByWard Market, the Congress Centre, the University of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. For me it's a great location since I am able to walk to a whole range of major tourist attractions, sights and museums.

The mansion itself was built in 1886 for an Ottawa politician by the name of John McGee. His outspoken, famous brother Thomas d’Arcy McGee was actually murdered in 1868. The mansion was built in Victorian style and beautiful wood carvings adorn the fireplace mantels and artisans from as far away as Toronto contributed to the architectural detailing. After John McGee’s family left the property just before the First World War, it became a boarding house and remained run down until the early 1980s. About 25 years ago it was finally turned into a bed and breakfast.

Enter the Armstrong family. Two generations of Armstrongs, Ken and Judy and their son Jason and daughter-in-law Sarah decided that they would enter the B&B business together. Ken had worked for Bell Canada for 30 years, decided to retire early and completed his real estate license, something he had always wanted to do. Judy had worked for the United Church Canada in the Conference Office, looking after accounting and continuing education for 16 years. Sarah has a graphics background and had worked for the ByTown Group as a graphic artist.

Their decision to enter into business together was ultimately motivated by Jason’s layoff from Nortel following which he wanted to spend more time with his young family. So they sat down and brainstormed about different ideas about what kind of business they could get into together. Jason had liked working at the yacht club as a teenager and Sarah was working there at the same time. They were thinking of a variety of hospitality related businesses: they considered buying a pub, even an ice cream parlour, anything that would allow the four of them to get into business together. Then the idea of owning a bed and breakfast came up. That had a good ring to it and they started looking into this option.

Jason meanwhile received job offers from as far away as Boston but he decided he did not want get into lots of traveling and wasn’t keen on continuing to work in computers. Right around that time in 2003 the McGee’s Inn came up for sale. The advantage with this property was that it was much larger than the other B&Bs that they had seen, and it looked like it might be able to provide enough revenue to sustain two couples.

By that time the bed and breakfast was somewhat run down with metal diner-style chairs adorning the dining area. The fireplace was covered up and much of the Victorian detailing had been neglected. The two Armstrong couples decided that they were going to buy the McGee’s Inn and put in an offer on the property. Financing was a major problem, however. It took them nine whole months to get the financing since all the banks were scared of touching a tourism business. All the head offices of the major banks were located in Toronto which had just been traumatized by the SARS crisis and the tourism industry had taken a major hit. As a result the banks declined many mortgage applications for tourism-related businesses.

Finally, the Caisse Populaire stepped up to the plate. Judy mentioned that they were wonderful to deal with and the local loans manager came out several times to visit the property and had full confidence in their planned venture. Stephane inspected the property first-hand to figure out how to sell the application to his superiors. Judy describes him as the typical old-fashioned bank manager who makes business decisions based on personal relationships. Sure enough, the deal came through with the Caisse Populaire and the two Armstrong couples were finally in the B&B business.

When the sale closed they had a total of three days to strip every single room, throw out every bed spread, every curtain. The four of them took over the property on May 25, 2004 and on May 28, 2004 they had a full house. They took possession of the property on a Wednesday, Thursday the moving company arrived with all their furniture and they worked like crazy to get rid of the old bedspreads. Judy says she went through the house like a whirling dervish, throwing existing linens, comforters and pillows out into the hallway to start their redecorating as quickly as possible. At some point she asked Sarah to go out and buy 15 new pillows so she could continue with her decorating spree.

Over the next few months they gutted the property as fast as they could and installed a proper fire detection system. The Armstrongs replaced the furnace, put in new piping and new wiring for wireless Internet access. In addition to these major structural improvements, they also repainted and redecorated each of the 14 guest rooms of the McGee's Inn.

Judy laughs when she says that the entire Sandy Hill neighbourhood, including the residences at the University of Ottawa, probably feature a lot of their 1980s furnishings and decor. When they took over the B&B, they gave away much of the old furniture to Lazarus House, a homeless shelter in Ottawa, and they put the rest by the curb. Judy said it was funny how they used to watch their discarded items walk away one by one, very quickly, most of them picked up by students from the university which is located just down the road.

At present they are still renovating the basement where Ken and Judy will be living later on. Jason and Sarah are living off premises with their small son and daughter. I asked them how things are going for two generations of Armstrongs working together seven days a week in a demanding hospitality business. Judy said that Sarah is easy to work with and admitted that every once in a while she still treats Jason like her son rather than a business partner.

But all of them say that their joint entrepreneurial adventure has been very rewarding and they really enjoy working together. Most of all they enjoy the lifestyle that it affords them, the fact that they have more time for family. People used to ask them if they were crazy, especially during the first year when they were doing all these renovations. But for the Armstrongs it’s all worth it.

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