The visually stunning downtown development had humble roots. The Park Town hotel started as a local family business, and almost 60 years later, it remains a local family business.
The Park Town hotel began as a simple idea by August Verbeke (Gus) and his brother Peter Verbeke. Gus and Peter were looking for a new business opportunity in 1957 when they imagined a hotel on Saskatoon’s prestigious Spadina Crescent.
The Verbeke brothers had previously invested in a hotel in Moose Jaw, and wanted to establish another hotel in their hometown. So when a lot came up for sale facing the South Saskatchewan River Gus, partnered with his longtime neighbour Earl Bowman, jumped at the opportunity. To get funds to build the hotel, Gus needed investors, so he created a company. Gus and Peter owned one portion of the shares along with their siblings Mary, Afra and Cyril. Once all the investors were in place construction began through Gus and Peter’s construction company Verbeke’s Ltd. And in 1958 the Park Town Motor Hotel was opened.
The Verbeke family has had a long history in building and construction. Gus and Peter’s father Jules was involved in the construction industry in Belgium before he immigrated to Canada in the early 1900’s. Jules also worked on the construction of the University Bridge in 1915.
The little motel on Spadina thrived during its first years, and the company wisely began to buy up neighbouring lots when they came up for sale. However, after a few years and a lot of stress, by 1973 the original group of investors was ready to sell. “That’s when Peter and I decided that we would buy it,” the late Gus Verbeke said, “the reason why I wanted it so badly was because I figured it was a really good idea to expand it.” And expand it they did.
Gus became the General Manager of the business and kept buying up the adjacent properties with an eye on the future. Gus admitted some frustration as prices went higher as his neighbours realized he was putting together a pretty impressive block of land. Finally there was only one resident and property left. “Oh, he wanted a fortune for it” Gus remembered with a chuckle, “I had to keep him in the hotel in a room, and that was a story too, because he use to cook in there and he’d burn everything he cooked and it would stink.”
With the last property bought, by 1976 the brothers put together another investment group and expanded the hotel to 109 rooms with an indoor pool. This expansion was a long and expensive process. Gus recalled the time he went to his bank branch and one of the ladies working said “good morning Mr. Verbeke I hear you’re a millionaire now … in debt.” “And it was the truth,” said Gus with a laugh, “of course we didn’t do it to ourselves, we did have partners.”
However, the vision was not complete. In 1976, when the hotel was built, Gus and Peter had built an extra strong foundation over the hotel’s underground parking. The foresight to reinforce the foundation, lead to the construction of the Parkville Manor in 2004. Gus Verbeke watched his vision grow every day until his death at the old age of 93.
By 1990 Gus’s first son Terry Verbeke took over as the General Manager of the hotel and in 1999 construction began on a further expansion to add 65 new rooms which were to include some of the best river views in the city. Terry is now the current CEO of Park Town Enterprises.
Shortly before his death, Gus said he enjoyed the challenges of his career and business and liked the satisfaction of seeing the enterprise he helped build do so well. He reminisced back to 1957 when he was a young businessman. Gus recollects he had to overcome the people who did not share his vision, “you know when I started building here people use to come by and say ‘You’re crazy, that’ll never go.’ Well it’s never stopped.”
Verbeke’s Ltd., now owned and operated by Bill Verbeke, Gus's youngest son, still owns some of the equipment Jules brought with him from Belgium. Bill, an accomplished carpenter, has continued the long time tradition of craftsmanship at the hotel. Bill has done much of the woodwork in the Park Town Hotel, Parkville Manor, and Finn’s Irish Pub.