What a ride for a guy who admits he was in the deep end of the pool with no experience when he purchased the Queens Hotel in March 1974.
After 46 years as owner, Rob Hamilton has sold the popular bar and nightclub to manager Chris Gerrard.
Hamilton said he got thinking of a career change when a fellow teacher purchased a bar in Toronto. At the time, Hamilton had been teaching for four years at Don Mills Collegiate.
“I enjoyed the classroom, enjoyed the kids, and enjoyed coaching, but I didn’t want to look at the salary grid and see what I was going to be making 15 years down the road. I wanted to do something for myself.”
Hamilton was 29-years old when he bought the Queens Hotel from the widow of the former owner who had been beaten to death in the place by members of an outlaw biker gang.
“There we were in the deep end of the pool with no experience and not realizing what we were getting into. At the time, the Queens had 44 bedrooms. All of them rented. A lot of people lived there permanently, a lot by the week and some by the month.”
With the purchase, Hamilton also had bought a piece of Barrie’s history. He chuckles when he talks about the Queens because Hamilton said it’s confusing to people who look at old photographs of the Queens Hotel and they remark that it’s not the Queens.
“The Queens was actually the Barrie Hotel which was built in 1850. The Queens Hotel was down the street, and about 1915 it burned down. The people that owned the Queens Hotel purchased the Barrie Hotel and renamed it the Queens.”
In the early going, Hamilton said the Queens was known for its rock bands and rough crowd.
“We endured with that for a couple of years to get ourselves established and to build a relationship with the police.”
In 1977, the Queens was renovated to a disco.
“This was John Travolta and Saturday Night Live,” laughs Hamilton. “We rode that disco up, we rode it across and we rode it down. We got about 10 years out of it. Then, it was always a nightclub with DJs and recorded music. We had Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and a lot of local bands.”
Hamilton admits the sale of the Queens Hotel is bittersweet.
“I would get up in the morning and always had a place to go. The coffee pot was on and the people were nice to me because I was the boss and signed the cheques.”
He is quick to give credit to his “good staff and also to the customers.” Hamilton points out they were into the third generation in some families as far as the customer base is concerned.
“I won’t have trouble filling my days. But it’s definitely going to be a change and an adjustment.”
There are some things he won’t miss.
“You sort of get tired of the responsibility. Every time you go there you see something that’s not being done correctly, and you have to change it, got to fix this and that. Not having that responsibility and worry all the time will be a relief. I definitely won’t miss that.”
Asked what was the drive that kept him going, Hamilton responded like the answer should be obvious.
“To survive, both literally and physically, and to survive financially. You just have to persevere. You have to suck it up and go to work every day, and there were lots of days I was scared to death in there.”
Hamilton feels confident in handing the keys to Gerrard. They go back 31 years including the time Hamilton owned the Roxx nightclub, which was also in downtown Barrie, and which he sold in 2012.
Unlike Elvis, Hamilton has not left the building. He will continue to use his office at the Queens for a couple of months to wind up the affairs and pay the bills as they come in.
Hamilton may have retired but he has not walked away from the passion he feels for downtown Barrie. In fact, just mention the downtown and Hamilton is brimming with ideas.
When Hamilton was mayor of Barrie between 2003 to 2006, the city created a downtown masterplan. He thought Dunlop Street West would act as the city’s entertainment district.
He is currently the chairperson of the Downtown Barrie Business Association (BIA). Hamilton doesn’t own property in the core anymore, though he expects Gerrard will designate him as his representative on the board.
Now at age 75, Hamilton can look back fondly on his decision to walk away from the classroom, purchase the Queens Hotel and truly do something for himself, and he hopes for the City of Barrie.
“It has been fun. A lot of good contacts, staff and customers. It really gave you a sense of belonging and contributing. Barrie has been a great city to raise a family and live.”