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No shortage of investors for future urban reserves, conference told

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First Nations set out a road map Wednesday on how they could develop four urban reserves over the next two years in and around Winnipeg and generate $40 million from the combined 242 hectares.

Key to the prescription laid out at a day-long conference at the downtown Marlborough Hotel was a series of presentations and speeches from some of the more successful urban reserves in Canada, and an expression of support from some of the richest American native corporations said to be eyeing prospective investments north of the border in cities like Winnipeg.

About 200 local aboriginal business leaders and politicians attended the conference, among them a new breed of aboriginal executives who act as brokers for business relationships between non-native investors who have money and aboriginal entities that have land.

Swan Lake, Roseau River, Brokenhead and Long Plain want to commercially develop parcels of land they own in and around Winnipeg.

Deals must protect investors, landowners

Setting up a relationship that protects both investors and aborginal landowners is key to business success, said Mic Werstuik, a band councillor for Westbank First Nation who outlined how his First Nation created a thriving business hub over the last 50 years.

The business hub now pumps $500 million into the local economy for Okanagan’s Valley and British Columbia’s retirement mecca of Kelowna. Westbank uses its profit to buy up more land for more development.

"We have every type of business you can think of from Walmart to mom-and-pop businesses operating out of people’s homes," said Werstiuk, whose wife is from a Manitoba First Nation.

"One of the ways I gauge commercial success is... we have three Tim Hortons on our reserve. West Kelowna, (next door) has none. They all have to come to the reserve to get their Timmy’s," he said. The example won appreciative chuckles.

Closer to home, a Saskatchewan chief explained how negotiations over one of their urban reserves almost broke down over sewer and water services at the very beginning. Now that’s just water under the bridge, Piapot First Nation Chief Jeremy Fourhorns said.

Once a business relationship is set up, it rarely falls apart, he said.

"It’s the little things that can carry you a long way through that process... and we do pay them for the use of their services, just like anybody else."

"People shouldn’t be afraid of it. They should embrace it."

Plans for Skype messages from American native leaders, in California, Florida, Connecticut and Oklahoma ran into some technical glitches but the message at the conference was that $500 million – the capital needed to launch the joint urban reserve development – isn’t an issue.

Casino-rich American native corporations are actively looking for new investment opportunities and as long as they can be assured the framework is in place to secure their capital and protect it, Canada’s a good place to invest, the conference was told.

Terry Nelson, the Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, said it’s up to First Nations to realize the biggest issue is planning and their own attitudes.

"The message is very clear: Money is not the problem. It’s structure, structure for generating wealth," he said. "What’s important is to understand where the problem lies."

Long Plain First Nation, which owns a city block in Winnipeg and two urban reserves in and around Portage la Prairie, organized the conference. The reserve is widely expected to take the lead and encourage coordinated development of urban reserves in the next year or two.

Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches said the forum was a way to announce that urban reserves are coming to Winnipeg and they will be successful.

"We need to do a lot of education on what urban reserves really mean and how they can generate business and how we can roll that out," Meeches said.

"People shouldn’t be afraid of it. They should embrace it."

Long Plain already has service agreements in place to cover payment services on its reserve lands in Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. The next step is to expand on the development that’s already in place.

Plans call for adding an office complex in this city and a range of developments in Portage la Prairie, Meeches said.


Updated on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 5:09 PM CST: Corrects spelling of name, also rejigs sentence about Piapot urban reserve.

11:20 PM: Fixes typos.

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