Osoyoos Indian Band stimulates tourism
OSOYOOS, British Columbia Between its nine tribally-owned businesses, the
Osoyoos Indian Band calculates annual revenues of $13 million (CDN). Quite
an accomplishment, considering these entities aren't gaming-related nor is
there any casino backing these ventures.
Denied a decade ago by the British Columbia licensing board to open a
gambling resort, the band, using the separate branch of the Osoyoos Indian
Band Development Corp. (OIBDC), continued its goal of economic
self-reliance. In the years since, the reserve of 400 has been recognized
as a financial model to emulate and has attracted the attention of private
Entering his 20th year as chief, Clarence Louie credits the stability of
Osoyoos' governing council and its mandate of fiscal responsibility as
prime reasons for his people's mobility.
Honored last April by Canada's National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in
the Business and Community Development category, Louie firmly believes that
Native independence will occur after economic roots have been planted.
"You can't have sovereignty without [being] self-supportive, and you can't
be self-supportive without financial strength," claimed Louie.
Surrounded by reams of paper strewn on his desk and file folders stacked on
the office floor, Louie was apologetic for the mess. The clutter, however,
is understandable upon recognizing the tribe's commercial diversity.
Highlighting OIBDC is Nk'Mip Cellars, which opened in 2003. The first
Aboriginal-owned winery in the world, its sales are projected to grow
tenfold to $2.6 million while producing 18,000 cases per year by 2010.
Taking advantage of its location and climate, the band started its own
vineyard in 1968; since then, OIBDC manages 1,200 acres of vineyards -
accounting for one-fifth of British Columbia's total.
With 50 square miles of contiguous land set aside as reserve property in
one of Canada's most hospitable climates, Louie appreciates that his band
has been blessed. Recognized as the country's only warm-weather desert,
south Okanagan has become a tourist destination and retirement center. That
also explains why the championship 18-hole Nk'Mip Desert Canyon Golf Course
grossed more than $2 million in 2004, with 22,000 rounds played.
This past winter OIBDC expanded its empire to include a part-ownership in
Mt. Baldy, an existing ski center in the area. This too is a milestone, as
the Osoyoos become the initial First Nation to own a ski resort.
Being tied into the local tourism sector has required the band to work
closely with the town and its marketing board. The executive director of
Destination Osoyoos, Glenn Mandziuk, said both entities see to it that each
While there may not be a scientific measurement of OIBDC's impact on the
growth and popularity of southern Okanagan, Mandziuk noted the increase of
tourists between 2003 and 2004. During that one year, the number of
visitors jumped 25 percent to 500,000, an amount the tourism board
attributes almost solely to the band's activities.
"What you can take from that is the thrust of the new winery, new heritage
center and RV park [expansion]; and that played a significant role," said
What also has Osoyoos buzzing is the exquisite Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort
& Spa on OIB property, expected to open this summer. A $23 million project
that will contain 30 villas and 64 suites for purchase and rental, Spirit
Ridge is tapping into a more upscale market of travelers.
Located beside Nk'Mip Cellars, the nine-hole Sonora Dunes golf course and
the Desert & Heritage Centre, which is scheduled for a new $7 million
building, Spirit Ridge will be the Okanagan's only full-service spa.
Visitors will also be near Lake Osoyoos and hiking opportunities in the
Managing the property is Bellstar Hotels and Resorts from Calgary, Alberta.
Armed with a long-term deal, OIBDC will be paid at least $250,000 annually
for the rental of three acres, a deal that pleases Louie and Bellstar CEO
Romanowski, who has a long history of other business ventures with First
Nations, notes it's the credibility of Louie and the Osoyoos Band that
makes outside investment quite attractive.
"That's the number one reason to do business with people, because there are
risks involved with any project," the CEO said. "What they've [OIBDC] done
and executed ... is evidence that their word is their deed."
Chief Louie empathizes with geographically-remote reservations that might
not be able to set long-term economic goals. However, he is critical of how
other First Nations haven't been as money-savvy as they should be.
"Native people have been so marginalized, with their self-control taken
away for 100 years; it will take a while to get it back. This is an
education process in order to ask the same questions non-Native people will
Following a day of meetings, and still swamped with paperwork well into the
evening, what energizes the chief is maintaining the well-being of the
band's businesses. There's no time to rest on OIBDC's laurels, Louie
warned: the benchmark for any business is five years because only half
survive that period, and only one-quarter of enterprises survive to see 10
"The toughest part isn't getting businesses started, because they happen
all over the world; it's keeping them going," Louie pointed out.