How interesting that it took a 69-year-old independent businessman to build the first new major hotel in downtown Edmonton in 25 years, the 255-room (including 32 suites), 12-storey Hyatt Place at 9576 Jasper Avenue.

 

How interesting that Prem Singhmar was willing to break new ground, to be the first developer to make a major ($55 million) investment in The Quarters, the City of Edmonton’s vision for the Downtown East. Hyatt Place is one block east of the Shaw Conference Centre. And the new hotel has opened in the middle of a province-wide severe economic downturn.

Prem professes to no particular financial acumen, but his track record is one of successful real estate and land development, one project after another.

Starting with a chicken farm near Redwater on his arrival from India, via Libya, in 1985, Prem’s UAM Enterprises now consists of hotels, commercial and residential buildings and construction throughout Metropolitan Edmonton, plus agricultural holdings.

“I am not a sophisticated businessman. I had no formal training,” he shrugs. “I just kept re-investing cash flow. I was an eye surgeon in India and Libya, but I was 35 when I arrived in Canada. By the time I’d have qualified to practise medicine here, I’d only have had a few years left in that career. In India, my family were farmers. So that’s where I started.”

What motivated Singhmar to build in The Quarters, where no businessman has gone before? Not only to have invested, but to have erected a beautiful, multi-angled hotel designed by Edmonton architect Gene Dub, featuring an all-glass surface made up of 1,400 windows – most with panoramic river valley views.

One must recognize that Singhmar is a renaissance man with far more wide-ranging interests than the mere exchange of commerce.

To break bread with Prem is to discuss classical Indian philosophy, education, political science, ideology and the art of governance. At his Sherwood Park Holiday Inn alongside Millennium Place, the Singhmars host functions introducing ideas or people they believe to be of interest to the greater community, from newly arrived professors, to aspiring conservative politicians, to visiting Indian writers and intellectuals.

In keeping with such an outlook, the Singhmars have given back many times over — $1.5 million to the University of Alberta in 2006, $1.2 million to the new Art Gallery of Alberta in 2008, $2.5 million to NorQuest College in 2015.

So why sink millions into a hotel, in the unproven Quarters, in the current fiscal winter?

Outside of the Rocky Mountain tourist meccas, Alberta’s hotel business has crashed and burned, from 65% daily occupancy before the 2014 oil-price crash to 39% occupancy today.

Singhmar shrugs again. “Why hotels? I don’t really know. As I learned about construction, they seemed like good investments in good economic times. It’s pretty lousy at the moment, but hotels are good, long-term businesses.

“I have never looked at the economy as a whole,” says Prem, “just particular investment opportunities. When I first arrived, the Alberta economy was in rough shape. But coming from Libya, it looked pretty good to me.

“Cities are developed by visions, not business plans. Chicago burned to the ground 150 years ago. All it had was a lake and stupid weather. Look at what they accomplished.

“(Past) Mayor Steve Mandel was a visionary. When my son and I were thinking about building a downtown hotel, Mayor Mandel inspired me with his vision for The Quarters. I’m not one for market appraisals or market research – only if the bank insists. They’re rarely right. It’s all about vision.”

Hyatt Place took three years to build. But Singhmar is patient. “I’m good at cost control,” he says. “The Hyatt is long-term. There are short-term challenges but the city will grow around the hotel.”

Approaching 70, Prem is not sure if Hyatt Place will be his last major project. “My wife wants me to take it easy, but I’m healthy, I love challenges. I’m not sure I’m built to slow down.

The businessman with a scholastic soul will chart his own future. But should Prem chose to remain active through his ‘70s, Edmonton will be the better for it.

As for the Hyatt, Prem’s timing was reinforced by Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, who came to Edmonton for the construction start of the new JW Marriott Hotel in the Ice District.

“For those who have boldness and vision,” Sorenson said, “this is probably exactly the time to act.”