A young aboriginal man from Sagkeeng First Nation is headed to Las Vegas with a startup plan for a 40-room hotel on the old Kapyong military base.
The student, Kelly Edwards, 21, won a local contest for entrepreneurs sponsored through the University of Winnipeg, with judges from the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce. The victory gave him the right to enter a higher-level competition in Las Vegas in mid-March. The prize money is $20,000.
If Edwards wins the Las Vegas prize money at the Annual National Reservation Economic Summit, it would help fund further study of what he believes is a realistic business proposal.
In an interview from Sagkeeng, Edwards said the hotel would only be built if Kapyong becomes reserve land. His plan is to turn one of the old barracks, a two-storey structure known as the Vimy Building, into a small hotel with a breakfast bar.
He believes the idea has a legitimate chance at the main prize because it takes into account the intricacies of economic development on a Canadian reserve where normal tax laws don't apply.
For that reason, he said he's pitching his plan to the six First Nations involved in the court case over the Kapyong Barracks property to win their financial support for a land lease. He also hopes to attract aboriginal investors to the project.
"If the court ruling stays in favour of the six First Nations, I think there will be a hotel built there. My business plan is the first viable business plan out there," Edwards said.
In a ruling last year, the Federal Court ruled the First Nations have a treaty right to be consulted about the disposal of the land. Ottawa appealed that ruling and was granted a hearing last week in the Federal Court of Appeal. The verdict isn't expect for a month or two.
The former base is a prize piece of Winnipeg real estate, but it has been tied up in court for years, the focus of a pitched battle between the federal government, which wants to sell it commercially, and six First Nations that claim it as a treaty entitlement.
Edwards is headed to Las Vegas with a second student from the University of Winnipeg's 12-week business entrepreneur program. Edwards is an earlier graduate of the program.
Travel expenses for both are covered by the Las Vegas event sponsor, U.S. National Centre for American Indian Enterprise Development and an anonymous donor through the university.
Edwards said he came up with his business concept while enrolled in the program for young entrepreneurs, taught by Wab Kinew, the U of W's director of indigenous inclusion.
"He's my mentor," Edwards said of Kinew, a former CBC broadcaster best known for the Eighth Fire documentary series on CBC.