Kevin and Shawna Walker, Oak Bay Beach Hotel

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If adversity really does make you stronger, Kevin and Shawna Walker must be heavy lifters by now. Their project to rebuild the Oak Bay Beach Hotel has endured six years of challenges and left a gap in the Beach Drive landscape for the last two years that still wounds passersby who loved the old hotel. First came the public outrage, then the detailed and lengthy municipal scrutiny. Then came the setback of having the first design rejected, followed by the setback of a global economic crisis in which housing prices plummeted and investors went into hiding.

“Four years in the approval stage, one year for the development permit, two years in presales during a very tough two years. It hasn’t been easy,” says Kevin Walker. His wife Shawna says they’d do it all again even knowing what they know now, acknowledging that “nothing went according to plan.”  

Still, they both see a strange logic in the way things have turned out. The new hotel was supposed to open in May this year, but that could have been disastrous given the downturn in tourism, notes Kevin. Yes, the project is two years behind and the 120-room luxury development (100 hotel rooms, 20 condos) now won’t open until the spring of 2011. But he says that should work out well since B.C. should be reaping the tourism benefits of the 2010 Olympics right about then. And the take up on three series of $10 million bond offerings this spring has been surprisingly vigorous, giving the Walkers the capital they need to move ahead with construction this fall.

{advertisement} Regrets? They’ve had a few. There’s no easy way to tear down an 80-year-old beloved community gathering place without upsetting people in the neighbourhood but also in the Walkers’ own families. Kevin’s father Bruce owned the hotel with business partner Glen Anderson for 22 years before selling to Kevin and Shawna in 1995, and the hotel was a mainstay for family gatherings. He says his sister still can’t bear to drive by the property where the hotel was torn down in 2007. One of Shawna’s first jobs as a teenager was at the hotel. But the couple was still caught off guard by the intensity of people’s feelings and by some sharp turns in the development process they hadn’t foreseen. Optimists to the end, the Walkers say the upside is that all that public engagement really did make the project better.

“There’s always a balance between wanting what’s right for the community, and an entrepreneur just timing out — not being able to last through the process,” says Shawna. “But our project is better for having gone through this.”

The community would have been happy keeping the old hotel there forever, says Shawna. But the building no longer met code and required seismic upgrades; leaving it as is simply wasn’t an option. However, several hundred salvaged items from the old hotel will be worked into the new decor to satisfy the community’s fondness for the old place.

Did you ever imagine you’d still be working on the project six years on?

Shawna: The truthful thing is that there was always a quiet confidence between us that we would make it to the end. But we often had no clue how we were going to do that.

Kevin: We’ve had a lot of opportunities to walk away from this project, but we always knew that we wanted to do this.

Has it been worth the effort?

Shawna: The sleepless nights? The worrying when we didn’t know what was going to happen next? Yes, it was worth it; no, it wasn’t worth it. It’s not a simple question. This project will be successful one day and, while we’re not there yet, there have been successes along the way.

Kevin: It depends on how you measure worth. It has brought tremendous learning and growth for our team and for us as a couple. We’ve been married 27 years — business partners and life partners. And we’re still here.

You created a community advisory committee for the project. How did that work out?  

Kevin: We had 33 people step forward to be on the committee, which ended up with 18 on it. We had fights initially: “This is our hotel, don’t touch it.” But the group lasted for more than two years and many of these people ended up friends of ours.

Shawna: The committee played a really fundamental role in our first design charette, although that design was ultimately defeated by council.

What worried people most about the redevelopment of the hotel?

Kevin: We heard a lot about the importance of heritage. I started asking people what they meant by that, and the thing we agreed on is that it’s about memories. That’s why so much of the old hotel will be built into the new one. The Snug will be a replica, right down to using some of the same boards from the original. The lobby will look exactly the same, only upgraded.

Are there barriers in the development process that need to be addressed?

Kevin: Politics always add a difficult element. At any level of government, it’s not pure logic driving the process, because there’s always one eye on the political. Maybe Oak Bay is particularly passionate about its community, to the point that it can sometimes look like you’re being stonewalled. But really, I see council as just having been very thorough.

What impact has the economic downturn had on the project?

Shawna: Our launch was scheduled for last September, but the [pre-sale] contracts just fizzled overnight, as they did for everyone. We were hugely impacted and very discouraged. It took from October to March to develop the bond fund.

Kevin: We wouldn’t have had a bond offering if it weren’t for the downturn, though, and that’s going really well. It also brought our costs down, and we’re now seeing pretty good availability of trades. And it certainly made us aware of potential landmines in front of us, so we won’t get cocky.

How have you kept positive?

Shawna: The truth is that Kevin and I realized early on that we would be OK either way. You’ve got to be at a point where you know you’ll be OK even if it doesn’t work out. Being able to give that up was probably the best thing for us.

Kevin: We’re people who have faith and know that much bigger things are going on in this world and our lives than this project. It’s also really helped us to be a couple, because we’ve gone through this together.
Were you surprised by the initial opposition to your project?

Shawna: That was new to us, to be facing all this opposition. But if you’re going to debate, argue, and fight all the negativity, you’d never accomplish your goal. So we had to let that go. I’d recommend people focus on their goal and don’t try to fight the opposition.

Any advice for people embarking on similar projects?

Kevin: Be determined. Listen a lot. And never, never, never give up. Be authentic, because people will see through it if you aren’t.

Shawna: Recognize that you might not know how you’re going to get to your final destination, so you want to concentrate on your next step. Rest along the way. And never be afraid to hire someone who’s smarter than you.