A decade after establishing the Drake Hotel and turning it into a bastion of cool, Jeff Stober, the city’s hippest hotelier, is expanding his empire.
In some ways, the new Drake Hotel will be indistinguishable from his Queen Street boutique hotel/hotspot when it opens early next year – the art will be meticulously curated, the playlist handpicked by someone who knows better.
But anyone wanting to bask in the retro cool of the new property will need to do more than step off the 501 streetcar. They’ll need to get in a car and drive 207 kilometres to Wellington, a picturesque village on the edge of Lake Ontario in Prince Edward County.
It’s a long way from downtown Toronto, and represents an enormous challenge for Mr. Stober. Many deep pocketed investors have tried to bring cool to the county, only to find themselves thwarted by suspicious locals resistant to change and the fickle whimsies of the weekend jet set.
And if he does manage to win over the locals – a difficult task for anyone, let alone a dot-com millionaire who runs artsy hotels in the big city – his success could attract more ambitious, out-of-town interlopers anxious to develop another rural getaway of Torontonians desperate to spend the weekend anywhere other than the city.
For the village’s 1,700 residents, most of them retirees who fled cities such as Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto for a quieter life, it’s a pressing concern.
“We haven’t done a good job of welcoming development over the last 20 years,” says real-estate agent Jim Wait. “The community has always been a bit scared of what might happen. They are afraid this place could get turned into a Muskoka or Collingwood.”
Mr. Stober brushes that all aside as he sits in the lobby of the Drake, somehow appearing both relaxed and tightly wound at the same time. His purchase of the former Devonshire Inn for $1.3-million should be seen as an isolated event in the village’s history, he insists, not be watched as a barometer of the region’s cool.
“We think the benefits to the county are multiple, never even mind all the eyeballs we’ll bring by coming,” he says. “We will authenticate our commitment to the local community, and locals who are interested in dining, in hearing music or seeing art will feel most welcome and appreciated.”
An urban oasis in the country
The 52-year-old Mr. Stober, who started a headhunting firm in his early 20s and sold it at the height of the tech bubble, has been planning to expand the Drake brand from the minute he finished renovating the Queen Street location and flung open its doors in 2004. It’s an eclectic mix of old and new, with locals drinking coffee at the bar in the morning and dancing maniacs from across the region spilling in at night.
Later this year he plans to knock down the eastern walls, allowing the property to spill into the adjoining lots he has been buying up for the last decade. He’s also built two Drake General Stores, one on Bathurst and another on Yonge Street. The quirky shops offer a curated selection of curiosities, and a third location will be included in the Queen Street renovations.
His presence in the area was initially bemoaned by many who feared gentrification and worried about the hordes of partygoers the Drake was attracting to a region that was once better known for hookers than hipsters.
“It’s funny when you look around here,” he says, turning his head to look out at the lunchtime crowd walking past his Queen Street windows. “Everybody else is growing up, but we’re the ones who are being true to our history and expanding outwards instead of upwards. That’s so important to us, to maintain the history of the neighbourhood.”
His experience along Queen Street has informed his approach to the county. He spends a lot of time talking about how the Drake Devonshire Inn, as it will eventually be called, will draw from the county’s richest traditions when it opens and provide a cultural hotspot just as accessible to the locals as to vacationers looking for a good time.
“This isn’t about building something for ourselves,” he says. “This belongs to everyone.”
As ambitious as his Toronto plans are, he’s always wanted to build something in the country. He grew up visiting Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a rolling countryside that draws tourists from the Montreal area year round and is markedly similar to Prince Edward County. Both regions, he points out, were settled by British subjects who opted to flee the United States rather than fight for its independence in 1775.