Can recovering addicts save Manitoba’s failed Hecla Oasis resort?

The pitch is to turn it into a five-star, international drug rehab centre

A last-resort plan

Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press

Hecla Oasis is a luxury resort with anything but a glamorous past. Part of a provincial park along Lake Winnipeg, Hecla was built by the government in 1975 to rescue a ghost town, but the five-star getaway never really found an audience. Despite its 18-hole golf course, mineral spa and decor that includes a stream flowing through the main lobby, a two-hour drive north of Winnipeg proved too far for those with plenty of closer vacation destinations. The 90-room resort, which has always failed to make a profit, has been shut down since 2010 and is up for sale.

The man who might save the Hecla Oasis has a troubled past himself. Though Ian Rabb won’t confirm the price of the bid he made (the listing price is $3.5 million, down from $6.5 million a year ago), he wants to open an addiction treatment centre alongside quaint cottages, a marina and a general store. He hopes the 70-acre resort will be the perfect setting to help 100 addicts at a time kick their habits, as he did 11 years ago. In 2001, the now 47-year-old was living on the streets and injecting himself with drugs: “I used crystal meth probably eight years, every day,” says Rabb, who sounds every bit the slick real estate developer who ran for city council in Winnipeg last year.

The irony is that recovering addicts might be the most stable business solution for Hecla, and could put an end to the province’s fraught relationship with the resort. Health and wellness tourism, or medical tourism, is a $20-billion industry, according to Renee-Marie Stephano, the founder of the Medical Tourism Association, and one that Canada hasn’t really tapped into. It encompasses everything from skin treatments to addiction centres like the one Rabb plans to open—with luxury spaces where addicts can go to rehab without feeling like they’re in rehab. Though treatment centres exist in Canada, mostly in B.C., Rabb says none are as luxurious as Hecla. He plans to charge around $450 per night for a minimum 40-night stay.

He might be the last hope to save Hecla. In 2005, Manitoba sold the property to the Paletta Group, a Winnipeg family that owns hotels in the city. With a $5.5-million grant from the province and an $8.5-million loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), the company renovated the resort, adding a luxury spa, water park and gourmet restaurant, and reopened for business in 2008. The resort was still struggling, and after the province refused to make another development grant, company president Joe Paletta shut it down in 2010. (He is now suing the province and the BDC for the $19 million he claims to have invested in the resort. A receiver is overseeing its sale.)

By that time, Rabb had sobered up after moving back to Winnipeg in 2001. His brother let Rabb work for his property development business and in 2005, Rabb bought an old youth hostel and converted it into a recovery house for addicts. He’s grown the charitable non-profit organization to three houses with a total of 33 beds. Now the problem is space.

Manitoba has the third-highest rate of substance abuse in Canada, and the total annual cost of alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse is $281 for each taxpayer, according to the most recent Addictions Foundation of Manitoba review. Rabb says every month he sends about a dozen people out of province for treatment due to a lack of beds. Now he is waiting to hear if the province will approve the sale, granting him the necessary lease to operate in the park. A spokesperson for the government says senior officials are working with the receiver to analyze the proposal, noting that a similar plan was proposed by Paletta two years ago and was rejected.

Cathy Danyluk, a real estate agent who works in Gimli, a thriving tourist destination an hour south of the resort, feels the government has held back development of Hecla Provincial Park. “It’s very difficult to start something,” she says. “For example, there’s an old hall [in the park] and I said to some locals, ‘Why don’t you use that hall on Friday nights when it’s raining and show movies?’ They said,‘We can’t. The government wants too much money to rent it for one night.’ ”

Despite grumblings that a rehab centre is less desirable than a luxury resort in quaint cottage country (Danyluk says it will undoubtedly flatten surrounding property values), Rabb is sure the centre will benefit the area. He anticipates creating at least 60 jobs, and though excess demand from Manitoba would fill at least one-third of the beds, there would also be room for international clients.

“People think I’m crazy for even wanting to dive into buying this place,” he says. “But I’m so frustrated with the state of mental health and addictions in Manitoba.” His plan might seem unduly risky to some. But in Hecla, that’s just par for the course.

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