New chapter for Wakefield Mill after 20 years
The Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa celebrated its 20th anniversary on May 4 — usually a time of celebration for any business reaching that milestone, however, the Mill sits virtually closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Co-owner Robert Milling said he views the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent the Mill — an opportunity he hasn’t had since before welcoming its first guests in 2001.
“In the absence of guests, we view time as our most valuable asset,” Milling explained. “We were dealt lemons, so we're making lemonade.”
Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Milling laid off 95 of his 100 person staff on March 16. Since then, he’s been slowly rehiring back staff. At present, the Mill has 30 employees, a number of whom were hard at work clearing 300 dead ash trees on the property and landscaping the area for a new function space on May 14.
While the indoor dining rooms remain closed, the Mill is currently dotted with Starlight Chalets, enclosed dining spaces that allow what few guests the hotel still accommodates to enjoy their breakfast or dinner with an unobstructed view of the waterfalls. However, once indoor dining is allowed, guests will be able to enjoy a five-course meal in an entirely redecorated and renovated Muse dining room overlooking the MacLaren Falls.
Along with the facelift, the Mill will be collaborating with Holtz Spa to reinvent their spa service menu, as well as with Art Mode Gallery, as part of a new focus on art and creativity.
“Part of where we want to get to when we reopen is a celebration of creativity,” Milling said, explaining that, once things begin to open back up, people’s need for live performance will be greater than ever. “That's where I want to get to in the next 20 years.”
For Milling, the past year he spent transforming and revitalizing the hotel and spa is reminiscent of the years spent leading up to the Mill’s grand opening in 2001. Originally built in 1838 as a flour mill, and then converted into a grist mill to produce feed for livestock after a fire in 1910, the mill was in operation until 1980, when it was converted into a fairly unremarkable heritage museum by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.
Before opening the Mill in 2001, more than a hundred tonnes of iron milling equipment had to be removed from the building to accommodate the conversion into a small, 26 room hotel and spa, which wouldn’t even have exterior dining until 2005 when the kitchen was expanded and upgraded.
For next two decades there was almost continuous expansion: opening the MacLaren House meeting space in 2002; repurposing the mill’s penstock to create a spa that tunnels directly below the waterfall, and a $3.5 million dollar expansion at the height of the 2009 financial crisis to construct the Eco River Lodge, upping the number of rooms offered at the hotel to 42.
High profile guests
For Milling, looking backwards is not something that comes easy for him, even on the occasion marking two decades of service of accommodating Russian prime ministers, American presidents, and every living Canadian prime minister.
“I like to reminisce about the future,” Milling said. “I'm looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”
With some prodding, however, he recalls a number of highlights throughout the years.
“One of my favourites was former finance minister Jim Flaherty,” Milling said, explaining that the former Conservative finance minister under Stephen Harper would spend a few days each August, using the occasion to hold a kind of “think tank” gathering with an “extraordinary guest list” of various leaders, “titans of industry,” artists, and politicians.
"Sometimes I wonder if the [idea for] tax-free savings accounts was born at the Mill," Milling joked.
Those in love – ‘the best guests, always’
For Milling, it’s not about how famous or powerful any of those guests were. The reason Flaherty’s meeting-of-the-minds stands out, Milling explained, is that it symbolized everything he believes the Mill stands for: making connections.
“Pre-COVID you could have said we were a discretionary want, but I think post-COVID those kinds of connections will become a necessary need,” Milling added. “I will judge our success by the number of guests holding hands when they stay with us.”
Above all, those are the connections Milling said he treasures most in the past 20 years, and the ones he is most excited to return to post-COVID.
“My favourite guests are the people that come here because they're in love,” Milling explained. “Those are the best guests, always.”