Saturday, March 1, 2014

Port Alberni's Historic Hotels: The Arlington Hotel, 1893-2012; Part III, Dan McCormack Years, 1980-2012

History of the Arlington Hotel, 1893 to 2012
Part III: 1980 to 2012

By Glen A. Mofford

The Arlington Hotel parking lot entrance to the pub, May 2011

My wife and I were watching the Vancouver Island news when a story came on about the closing of the Arlington Hotel Pub in Port Alberni. The historic pub was to close at 7 p.m. on May 31, 2011. We traveled to Port Alberni from Victoria before the planned closing of the Arli Pub and had lunch and a few drinks in quiet celebration of the history of the Arlington Hotel. Its future now in doubt, we wanted to at least say good-bye. The pub did close but the hotel remained open and was soon purchased by new owners. Even the pub reopened only a short time later under another name and a new owner.
This article will look back on the final chapter of the history of the hotel when it was known as the Arlington, from the years 1980 until the pub closed in 2011 and the hotel was sold in 2012.

In December 1980 the Arlington Hotel was purchased by three partners with thirty-eight year old Dan McCormack as the main proprietor. McCormack had worked as a manager for Butler-Lafarge in Richmond, BC when he decided to move to Vancouver Island. He was interested in investing and eventually settled on the Arlington Hotel which was available and doing a roaring business, especially in the pub. The purchase of the hotel proved to be a good move as McCormack and partners did well. Within two years McCormack had bought out his two partners and became the sole owner of the Arlington.

McCormack recalls the reaction of a few of the ‘regulars’ to the new owner as they warned him that they would not appreciate whole sale changes to ‘their bar.’ One regular customer went so far to tell McCormack if they got rid of the pub rug that he would never drink there again. McCormack did make many changes by cleaning up, modernizing and sprucing up the historic hotel but he made sure that the rug in the pub was not touched. McCormack quickly won over the regular customers and the hotel and pub continued to prosper under his management.

McCormack realized that the majority of his customers were hard working loggers, mill workers, trades people and generally blue collar workers. Beer was cheap and plentiful and was served by a well-paid staff. McCormack took pride in paying his staff well as there was significant competition from the newly completed Barclay Hotel just down the road and also from the historic hotels in south Port Alberni like the Beaufort, King Edward, Somass and the Kingsway Hotels, each with their own pub.
Besides the large pub, the Arlington Hotel had a popular restaurant and the Paul Bunyan Cocktail Lounge which filled with thirsty customers on the weekends. Some loyal customers in those years were Art Tapley and Buck Jones plus a host of other regulars that called the Arli pub their favourite watering hole. McCormack, through the Arlington Hotel, sponsored many local sports teams from fast pitch baseball to hockey teams. In all the Arlington sponsored twelve different sports organizations, and many of the players reciprocated by patronizing the Arli pub for post-game beverages.

The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the Arlington Hotel, and especially the pub, doing an excellent business. But the golden years were waning when circumstances beyond their control would soon be a cause for concern to McCormack and his Arlington Hotel.

The beginning of the end for McCormack and the Arlington Hotel began when the all indoor smoking was banned. Restaurants and bars were required by law to provide 50 per cent of their seating to non-smokers by January 1, 1992. This was just a pre-cursor to the next step to eliminate smoking in public places. Owners of pubs and lounges could have a room added to their establishments that act as a ‘smoking room’ but the remainder of their bar had to be smoke free. McCormack spent over 178,000 dollars when he had an addition added to the pub just for his smoking customers. Much of the money he spent went to a sophisticated ventilation system which protected both customers and staff who served in the smoking room from the harm of second hand smoke.

By January 1, 2000 WCB rules legally required that all workplaces, including the relatively new “smoking rooms” be 100 percent free of smoke and that no smoking indoors be allowed. This was a major blow, not only to the Arlington Hotel, but to the whole hospitality industry. McCormack remarked that, “Forty-five percent of the customers went out the door”. Also the Arlington, being the most popular bar in town was given special attention by the bi-law officials, resulting in many patrons, even loyal customers, to avoid the Arlington and go to pubs that had less policing of the new smoking ban. McCormack noticed a huge drop in business due to the smoking ban and warned of staff layoffs if business continues to slow due to ban on public smoking.

Meanwhile McCormack attempted to lure customers back with live music in the Arli pub and with food and drink specials. McCormack continued to support the Variety Club, Big Brothers and the Port Alberni Toy Run and the pub continued to be open from 12:00 noon until 2:00 AM but as business slowed the pub hours would have to be reduced as would staff work hours. As if the harsh smoking ban wasn’t enough to slow business, along came the HST followed by the strictest drinking and driving laws in Canada. Under the new laws, drivers with a blood alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08 received an automatic three day driving suspension and a $200 fine if caught. A driver who blows over 0.08 receives a 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine. These fines are for first offenses and go up drastically if caught a second or third time.

Liquor sales continued to plummet until McCormack was forced to reduce the hours that the pub was opened and lay off some staff. Closing hours were 8:00 PM Sunday through Thursday but stayed open later of Fridays and Saturdays depending on how busy it was in the bar and lounge.

By May 2011 McCormack had had enough. With pubs closing all over Vancouver Island and others just hanging on, he decided to close the Arli pub and put the hotel up for sale. Dan McCormack had run the Arlington Hotel for over 31 years and in a letter to his staff dated May 8, 2011 he confirmed the imminent closure of the pub blaming it on “stringent industry rules and regulations. “It is with much regret that I have made the most difficult decision of my business career of thirty years at the Arlington Hotel; the business will be shut down at 7 p.m. on May 31, 2011. The daily financial losses cannot be sustained any longer.”
The lack of customers forced McCormack to reduce his staff from fifteen to three so the bar had to close as it was not economically viable. The restaurant and hotel would remain open.

But all is not lost as the historic hotel was purchased by new owners and the pub reopened as the Blue Marlin Inn. There are precious few historic places left standing which allow us to peak into our past. Many of our historic buildings have, over time, been demolished or have burned down, fading from memory and usually replaced with new buildings.  Fortunately we have our museums, archives, photographs and some great aged buildings that still exist that cry out to be rediscovered, and fortunately, we still have what many an old regular will always call, the Arli Pub and Hotel.