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Local First Nations join partnership to buy Landmark Inn

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In a unique partnership representing 22 First Nations over three treaty areas, a consortium including the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp. and the Wasaya Group Inc. have come together to buy the Landmark Inn in Thunder Bay.

While the deal was finalized back on July 9, the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp. officially announced its participation in the business venture here Monday.

“It’s a new venture for the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp., and a new opportunity for us to create some wealth amongst the First Nation communities,” said Tony Marinaro, economic development advisor for Pwi-Di-Goo-Zing Ne-Yaa-Zhing Advisory Services here and vice-president of the Landmark Inn Partnership Ltd. board of directors.

Landmark Inn Partnership Ltd. is the name of the consortium.

“In general, more and more of the First Nations are getting into business investments to get the benefits that come from it—employment and dividends that allow them to support their communities,” echoed Jonathan Mamakwa, president of the Landmark Inn Partnership Ltd. board and vice-president of sales and marketing for Wasaya Airways.

“More than anything, it’s employment opportunities for our people.

“I think the other thing that comes into play here is wanting to be part of a community,” he added. “We don’t kid ourselves about the public perception of First Nations’ people. We want to move forward in a positive way, and getting involved in the hotel industry in Thunder Bay is our way of saying, ‘Okay, we want to be part of the community.’

“And we’ll continue to do that.”

“It’s providing us with the opportunity to keep the dollars in the northwest, and also develop meaningful partnerships,” noted Richard Bruyere, executive director of Pwi-Di-Goo-Zing Ne-Yaa-Zhing Advisory Services. “We’ve been here for thousands of years, and we thought it a golden opportunity for us to be able work with bands through the northwest.

“So when they offered us the opportunity to do that, we jumped on it.

“It’s exciting for us,” Bruyere enthused. “It’s good and it forms an alliance in terms of economic development and bringing prosperity to First Nations.”

“The reason we bought in was because of the multiple First Nations involved and the synergies they brought to the table. We looked at the whole thing and said this is an excellent long-term investment; a recirculating of our money,” remarked Jon Donio, secretary-treasurer of Landmark Inn Partnership Inc. and economic development officer for Animibiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishnaabek First Nation (Lake Nipigon).

“Basically, our community is two hours northeast of Thunder Bay, but a lot of our members are always doing business or have medical appointments in Thunder Bay, and a lot of them are staying [at the Landmark Inn],” Donio noted.

“We thought, ‘What a wonderful way to capture that money back.’ It’s fantastic the people will be staying in their own hotel,” he added.

“We were a bit reluctant at first in the sense that it is a very big project, but once we realized the due diligence that was being done and looked at all the other potential opportunities, we quickly overcame our fears and saw it was a fantastic opportunity, with tons of potential future opportunities associated with it,” Donio continued.

Last fall, three First Nations’ communities signed a purchase agreement for the Landmark Inn. Then this summer, more First Nations’ partners signed on, with the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp., an investment group representing Couchiching, Naicatchewenin, Nicickousemenecaning, Rainy River, Seine River, and Stanjikoming First Nations, coming in at the last minute.

Bruyere said it was because of the involvement of Wasaya Group Inc., being a credible organization with such successful business ventures as Wasaya Airways under their belt, that the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp. was prompted to investigate the opportunity.

“We had a good productive meeting our first meeting [with the other members of the consortium in June],” Bruyere noted. “They knew what they wanted, we knew what we wanted.

“Coming out of that first meeting, Tony [Marinaro] and I were convinced this was the thing to do.”

“The professionalism that was demonstrated and the people that were involved, it was quite evident the expertise was there on all counts,” agreed Marinaro, adding the local development corporation did its research on the business opportunity before bringing it before its board of directors.

The co-operation between the partners was referred to by some as “historic” since it involves three treaty areas—Treaty #3, Treaty #9, and the Robinson Superior Treaty area. These treaty areas include First Nations’ communities from across Northern and Northwestern Ontario, geographically ranging from Manitou Rapids in the west to Hearst-Constance Lake in the east, and Big Trout Lake in the north.

Many of them are fly-in communities.

“There’s 22 First Nations involved in this investment, which is probably the first of its kind in the country or at least in our area,” said Marinaro.

“It’s quite unique in that sense,” he added, noting the Landmark Inn Partnership Ltd. board consists of 12 elected members.

“The purpose of the creation of this development corporation in the Fort Frances Tribal Area was to create partnerships, and the best place was to start in the communities that we serve,” said Naicatchewenin FN Chief Wayne Smith, who also is vice-president of the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp.

“But we always look for opportunities to go outside the tribal area, and when this came up, it was something we couldn’t let go,” he stressed.

“It’s really good for us here in the Fort Frances to engage other First Nation communities in other treaty areas aside from ours. I think that’s really unique—not too many people do that, especially aboriginal people,” Chief Smith added. “There’s opportunities there, opportunities for expansion.

“It’s a fantastic place to be in.”

Since it’s come under First Nations’ ownership in July, business at the Landmark Inn has increased “substantially,” noted Marinaro, citing more and more First Nations’ clientele are choosing to stay there.

“The First Nations’ people want to participate in their own hotel. I get comment cards, and there’s one line where it says: ‘Why did you choose this location, this hotel?’ And I’ve seen many, many times: ‘Because it’s ours,’” said George Ward, who had co-owned the Landmark Inn with family members since 1986, and will continue to lend his experience and knowledge to the partnership for the next couple years to ensure the transition in management goes smoothly.

Ward added the Landmark Inn has seen a 10 percent increase in business between August, 2007 and August, 2008, and has an average occupancy rate of 85 percent. He estimated most hotels have an occupancy rate of 70 percent.

“Because of the increase, it allows us to take care of the debt of it a lot sooner,” said Marinaro. “We’re already in the planning stages for an expansion—a convention centre and other avenues that will address the demands that are coming towards us at this point.

“There’s a lot of First Nation business in the City of Thunder Bay,” he noted. “And it’s the only hotel on the Trans-Canada in Thunder Bay now with the change in the highway, so you get a lot of highway traffic stopping in for the one-nighters.

“We have a lot of our leaders and business people travelling to Thunder Bay for business and medical reasons, as do many other people from Fort Frances,” Marinaro added later. “It just makes since to try to recoup some of the money spent, rather than just be a consumer and spending our funds.”

Marinaro noted other regular clientele ranges from representatives from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

The 106-room Landmark Inn is located at the corner of Hwy. 11/17 and Red River Road in Thunder Bay, near the County Fair Plaza. It also features a pool and water slides, restaurant, hair salon, gift shop, bar and a liquor store.

While Ward has sold 100 percent of his shares to the Landmark Inn Partnership Ltd., he is staying on help prepare manager-in-training Craig Toset, who has been working with Ward for the past four years and will be taking over in the future.

“It is very unique bringing First Nations from the three different treaty areas together in an economic venture,” said Toset.

Marinaro said the Rainy Lake Tribal Development Corp., which also formed a partnership with Northern Bulk (a part of the Gardewine Group) back in June, will continue to look at other business opportunities and diversify its investments.

“We’re close on a couple more, but you can only move at a certain pace,” he remarked. “In order to do due diligence, you have to investigate and ensure you’re going in the right direction and it’s going to be feasible and profitable at the end of the day, and in the best interest of our communities.

“It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Marinaro stressed. “And you still have to monitor each of these projects once you get them going . . . and that’s going to prove to be the important part at the end of the day.”

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