Fort Nelson First Nation sees economic, cultural opportunities with hotel purchase

The Fort Nelson First Nation has bought the historic Fort Nelson Hotel with plans to turn it around into an indigenous showpiece in Northeast B.C.

The First Nation sealed the deal for the hotel, along with associated retail, mobile home park, and townhouse developments, for $862,000 in May through a court-ordered sale.

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Chief Harrison Dickie says the purchase is an economic and cultural development opportunity for his First Nation and the region. 

"It was a no-brainer to pursue purchasing it," Dickie said.

"Owning that central, historic property gives us immediate place to showcase our local heritage and culture on a steady stream of year-to-year traffic."

The original Fort Nelson Hotel was built in 1952, with an addition built in 1980, according to sale documents.

The property lends itself well to careers the First Nations has been training its members for in culinary arts, hospitality, and carpentry, Dickie said. The plan is to target the emerging aboriginal tourism industry, Dickie said, and to "imprint" a First Nations cultural presence in the community through renovations. 

"There's not a huge cultural presence in the Northeast like you would see … in Squamish, Whistler, Vancouver, Terrace, Smithers. They all have that First Nations identity to their communities. This gives us an opportunity to do that," Dickie said.

"There's a lot of models for success for similar projects. Imprinting our heritage, our artists' work, our cultural design, our look and feel to the establishment and rooms gives an identity to the hotel instead of the cookie cutter look you see in the north."

The property maintains 20 full-time staff, with up to 40 jobs in all when the restaurant, lounge, and property management are in full swing, Dickie said. Another dozen jobs will open up once renovation plans are set, allowing carpentry students to continue their apprenticeships, he added. 

Dickie couldn't estimate the cost of renovations, pending discussions with community members and the First Nations planning and economic development board on what those plans will look like. He estimated a two-year turnaround from purchase to a grand reopening.

Still, the purchase has generated some controversy among some of the First Nation's members, who oppose the decision over a lack of consultation and consent, and sent a petition claiming no confidence in the council to the federal government.

Dickie dismissed the concerns, saying the property was bought on a tight timeline well under the $1.2 million asking price, and knowing there'd be opposition from the community. 

"As elected council, we're delegated to make those decisions," Dickie said.

"That's the approach First Nations need to take. You have to make business decisions, and we knew that as council members. We don't always have the luxury of a long, drawn out community engagement process.

"This opportunity ties in with a lot of our other projects. The economy will pick up in Fort Nelson soon, and, owning a central location, it was an opportune time at that price to get into the market."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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