Over the past four decades of working in the hospitality industry on Prince Edward Island, there have been just a handful of bad days for Kevin Murphy. But when the occasional dud does come along, he likes to move past it by sitting in the lobby of the Great George hotel, listening to the guests wax poetic about PEI’s kinder, gentler way of life.
“It’s the simple things, like crossing a sidewalk without hearing a honked horn,” says Mr. Murphy, president of Murphy Investments Ltd., the parent company of the Murphy Hospitality Group, which owns the Great George hotel. “Where [these visitors] come from, that’s not normal.”
The Murphy Hospitality Group, set to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2020, has helped spearhead a rejuvenation of Charlottetown’s downtown core over the past decade, opening a progression of trendy restaurants and brewpubs inside once-dilapidated buildings that have been carefully renovated to maintain their heritage look.
Maritimes makeover keeps the area’s heritage alive
Not just on PEI, but also throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the company now operates 16 food and beverage operations, two boutique hotels (including the Great George) and a brewing company.
It’s a true family business, too. Mr. Murphy and his wife, Kathy, have three sons – Ben, Sam and Isaac – all of whom are involved with the family business in various capacities.
“These days if people go downtown in Charlottetown, they’ll hit as many as 20 restaurants in a three-block radius. A few decades ago, this wasn’t the case,” Mr. Murphy says. “Who could imagine that where the Gahan House now sits was once a dirty part of town – a spot you just didn’t go.” The Gahan House, another Murphy Hospitality property, is now a big draw to the island’s downtown area and was named after a mid-19th century merchant that lived and worked in PEI.
“Now there are other restaurants in the district and the area has expanded, down to the water and to other areas, and that’s the positive thing and it’s to be a fun part of it,” Mr. Murphy says.
How a little idea grew into a large, leading best in class business
Mr. Murphy, who supported himself as a bartender as he worked toward a business degree from the University of Prince Edward Island, was hoping for not much more than a steady job when he graduated at the age of 23. Soon after, he launched what would ultimately become a lifetime career with the purchase of one restaurant: the Barn. (Sadly, this restaurant burned down in 1986.)
“I didn’t know at the time that [buying a restaurant] was pretty risky,” Mr. Murphy says. “When you’re starting out, it takes time and experience and mistakes, and only [in] probably the last 15 to 20 years has it really started to mature into a company that has some strength in its people and more focus in what we do.”
His next purchase, in 1990, was a building in downtown Charlottetown, and he recalls that the core of the province’s biggest city at that time couldn’t have been more different from what it is today. When it first opened to the public the Great George was situated in what was then considered a rundown, undesirable part of town. Today, along with 20 other unique buildings that share the same block, it holds pride of place as the anchor of Charlottetown’s tourism district.
Travel these days, Mr. Murphy says, is suffering through a sense of sameness. The Great George satisfies the appetites of visitors looking to “step into a story” when visiting somewhere new.
“The Fathers of Confederation stayed at the Great George. It’s authentic and real,” Mr. Murphy says. “Everything goes back to about 1860, and in all our buildings, we try to envision what it was like back then and then try to tell that story in our buildings, in our places, in our people.”
Despite success, developers still have an uphill battle
While the Murphy Hospitality Group has made a success of turning rundown buildings into some of the Island’s most celebrated restaurants and destinations, developers say restrictions remain in place that are discouraging even more growth in Charlottetown.
Tim Banks, chief executive officer of the Island’s largest commercial real estate firm, APM MacLean, says it’s been a frustrating experience dealing with city council. Mr. Banks first started working in Charlottetown in 1980.
“There is no significant new build going on in downtown Charlottetown because council has their heads stuck in the sand,” Mr. Banks says, referring to the city’s building height restriction of 39 feet and four inches. “Any economics in any downtown core would tell you that in order to increase density and get a return on your investment you have to go up.” He adds, “[City council] is scared someone may not be able to see through the buildings, I guess, and as a result they’ve paralyzed the ability for people to move upwards.”
Mr. Murphy agrees that working with city council can be frustrating at times. He recalls the plight of local property owners on Victoria Row that sought – and were denied – the city’s support to redesignate their street as a car-free zone. Ultimately, the residents anted up 50 per cent of the costs to repurpose the street, including the addition of patios and an iconic wrought-iron gate entryway.
Today, 25 years after first becoming a pedestrian-friendly street, Mr. Murphy says the town has much to be proud of in Victoria Row. By some accounts, it’s the most-visited destination in PEI – even more popular than Anne of Green Gables. Although PEI Tourism could not officially verify this claim, a representative said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail it “may be the case,” given its popularity with visitors from cruises.
And despite the conflicts that have occurred in the past, the City of Charlottetown is quick to praise the work done by Mr. Murphy.
“The Murphy Hospitality Group has worked hard to contribute to the beautification efforts in downtown Charlottetown, while maintaining and enhancing the heritage integrity of their buildings,” says Alex Forbes, the manager of planning and heritage at the City of Charlottetown. “Downtown Charlottetown is a unique place, full of history, and MHG has become a part of this.”
The future looks bright
With the 40th anniversary of the Murphy Hospitality Group on the horizon, Mr. Murphy says he’s looking to the future with optimism – not just for his company, but also for PEI, as a whole.
For example, the Island’s food-tourism strategy has resulted in an increase of more than $2-million being spent in local restaurants between the last two exit surveys commissioned by PEI Tourism. Five years ago, the Prince Edward Island Convention Centre, located by the water on the cusp of downtown, was expanded by 50,000-square-feet to help drive tourism. And the Cavendish Beach Music Festival – of which the Murphy Hospitality Group is part owner – just celebrated its 11th anniversary in 2019 with nearly 60,000 fans in attendance.
Visitors will always come to Charlottetown’s downtown area, Mr. Murphy says, and these heritage buildings have kept a piece of Charlottetown’s history alive to greet them. The amazing part is how much this has changed in the past three decades. Mr. Murphy describes the former locations of some of his firm’s current restaurants as “literally dumps.”
The decision to bring life back into the buildings was key, Mr. Murphy says. The Murphy Hospitality Group has enjoyed being part of the renaissance of the district, he says, and seeing it expand through other blocks.
Mr. Murphy also says that conversations are under way to try to designate the street next to Victoria Row – where the Gahan House is located – for pedestrian-only traffic as well.
And on those rare days when he spends some time listening in on the conversations of guests and tourists at the Great George, it’s easy to gain a sense of the impact his efforts have had on his hometown.
“There’s real revitalization here, and perhaps it was driven by what we started at the Great George because people can see what you can do to old buildings without tearing them down,” Mr. Murphy says.