Winnipeg's first urban reserve opened for business Monday with the start of classes at Yellowquill College.

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Winnipeg's first urban reserve opened for business Monday with the start of classes at Yellowquill College.

But it will be a few weeks before Ottawa completes the process to convert 480 Madison St. into reserve land.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Yellowquill College students May Hapq (left) and Tanya M. Hanska work on computers at the Madison Street campus.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Yellowquill College students May Hapq (left) and Tanya M. Hanska work on computers at the Madison Street campus.

"They've moved in and it's Yellowquill's first day of operations," Long Plain First Nation Chief David Meeches confirmed Monday as classes got underway at the former Manitoba Hydro building in the shadow of Best Buy and Future Shop a block west of Polo Park.

The First Nation is planning a grand opening Jan. 25 for the site, which will eventually include a five-storey office tower, a gas bar, a convenience store and a tax-free distribution zone for First Nations buyers. Currently, any item delivered to a First Nation is tax-free. Once the Madison Street site is converted to reserve status, any First Nations person or community could arrange to have retailers deliver goods there -- from furniture to cars and trucks -- tax-free. Long Plain will likely charge buyers still undetermined fees in return for the service.

Ottawa hasn't yet signed off on the final paperwork to turn the city block into reserve land, a process the chief sees as a formality.

"We're waiting for approval in principle from Ottawa," Meeches said, adding he expects the federal paperwork "in about a month."

Federal officials confirmed they haven't converted the land yet.

Last July, the city approved Long Plain's plans to turn the property into an urban reserve. With city approval, federal paperwork is considered a formality.

Four years ago, plans called for the city's first urban reserve to be a political showcase.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs publicized a $100-million development plan that included a First Nations Governance House.

That fell through amid a flurry of headlines when Long Plain felt the proposal fell short of its desire to generate business on the site.

Two years ago, talks started with Yellowquill College to relocate its campus from its address on Assiniboine Avenue.

Students and staff were settling into their new digs Monday.

The former warehouse-style office building has a new, softer exterior facade. Inside, classrooms line prime window space, with administrative offices located around the inner core of the building.

"It's bigger. There's a lot more room," business student Kristen Daniels said, smiling as she looked around a spacious sunlit student lounge with classrooms on either side.

The Madison Street location is almost double the size of the former campus on Assiniboine Avenue, college director Doreen Beauchamp said.

Beauchamp said contractors are working on finishing touches such as installing office doors while the college settles in.

The move, under a long-term lease, is a good fit for the college, she said.

"It's like going home again, being back on reserve land again," Beauchamp said. "We were on Assiniboine for seven years, and before that we were on Portage Avenue for three years. Before that, we were in Portage la Prairie. This is our permanent home."

Yellowquill College opened 22 years ago with 16 students as a provincially licensed adult education centre in Portage la Prairie on land owned by Long Plain.

Today, half the 200 full-time students at the federally and provincially incorporated non-profit institution are enrolled as mature students and the rest earn diplomas and certificates in business and a variety of management programs. They come from across southern Manitoba. The college was founded in 1984 by the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca