Planned-community development widens horizons for Penticton Indian Band

Skaha Hills resort-style venture helps Okanagan First Nation win Aboriginal Economic Development Corporation Award

Matt Kenyon, president, Greyback Developments; Curt Jansen, vice-president, sales and marketing, Skaha Hills; Mohamed Awad, manager, winery and vineyard, Skaha Hills; Jonathan Kruger, chief, Penticton Indian Band; Jason Pechet, president, Stagewest Hospitality; Chris Scott, CEO, Skaha Hills; Garry Litke, mayor of Penticton; Dan Ashton, Penticton MLA | Scott Henderson

Over the last 10 years the Penticton Indian Band’s (PIB) economic development strategy has taken it from the modest beginnings of a river tubing business to a leading role in developing the Okanagan city’s only resort-style planned community.

In 2004, the PIB purchased Coyote Cruises, a small business that provides floating tubes and transport to summer visitors along the Okanagan River Channel. Then, in 2009, the band created Snpinktn Forestry LP, a department to manage certain tracts of the roughly 23,000 acres of wooded terrain belonging to the band and its 1,000 members.

Today, the band has completed a health-care centre and a cultural school and is considering co-developing a medicinal marijuana cultivation business on band land. It is also amid what band chief Jonathan Kruger calls the “gem” of its strategy – the second phase of a $250 million co-development above Skaha Lake to build 600 homes with access to golf, a winery and a private beach.

The PIB, the keeper of 46,000 acres of reserve land – the province’s largest – is transforming its economic prospects through the Penticton Indian Band Development Corp. (PIBDC), forging relationships with private business and government partners and winning national accolades for innovative and successful development ventures.

In March, the PIBDC won the Aboriginal Economic Development Corporation Award, an honour created by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) to shine a light on First Nations development success.

“I am very proud of our community,” Kruger told Business in Vancouver. “Our community gave us a mandate to start moving forward in economic development. They wanted to start creating more revenue for the things that we need in our community.”

He said the band recognized that it has some of the most beautiful and “feasible” land in the province tucked between Okanagan and Skaha lakes. He said it was time to focus its strategy and to build ties with outside corporate partners and other levels of government, including the City of Penticton.

“We went through some growing pains,” he said. “We had some learning experiences, but we’re starting to see the benefits.”

Kruger said the PIBDC targeted certain areas for development, including land above Skaha Lake that in the 1990s had been considered for a casino. “Our community said we should move ahead without the casino site, so we re-designated that, and that today is Skaha Hills.”

Skaha Hills is a seven-phase planned community being co-developed by PIBDC, Greyback Construction and others. Under the deal, PIB gave Greyback a 150-year lease on 550 acres, and 20% of the profits of the development flow back to the band. Buyers also qualify for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. mortgage insurance and conventional high-ratio mortgage financing. Curt Jansen, Skaha Hills’ vice-president of sales and marketing, told BIV in April that the agreement also waives the federal goods and services tax and B.C.’s property transfer tax.

“We’re sold out of Phase 1,” Jansen said in a separate interview. “We have the first four homeowners moved in and we’re averaging about one a week moving in, and one new home start. So there are currently about 22 homes under construction.”

The 47 homes in the first phase were designed with modern, eco-friendly, open concepts to maximize lake views. Jansen called Skaha Hills the only planned community in Penticton that offers a resort lifestyle, “where you’ve got the beach, you’ve got golf, you’ve got pools. One of our biggest claims to fame is the abundance of walking, hiking and biking trails.”

The second phase of another 20 homes is slated to be available for sale in May. “We have a lot of people on that waiting list,” he said.

Jansen said the PIBDC partnered with the right people and companies. “With that partnership comes credibility. It gives a structure, it gives the knowledge and expertise to allow them the opportunity to build a self-sustaining economy.”

Several lessons have emerged from the band’s development efforts, Chief Kruger said. “We’ve learned to communicate and really form alliances with key people in our surrounding areas,” he said. “I’m so proud of the leaders from Westbank First Nation and Osoyoos Indian Band for giving us advice on the dos and don’ts, and just from that, we’ve already saved over $6 million. That was free advice.”

He said partnering with the City of Penticton for infrastructure such as sewer and water has also helped. “We’re very honoured to have that kind of partnership with the city, mayor and council.”

The band is also developing commercial land between the Penticton airport and the Okanagan River Channel, to be accessed by a federally funded bridge being built.

The federal government invested $2.4 million for the Satikw Crossing to link Highway 97 to about 60 hectares of PIB land as part of a long-term strategy to develop a 150-room hotel, 23,000 square metres of retail space and 25,000 square metres for a business park.

Kruger said the medicinal marijuana cultivation plan is also still in the works. “Right now the lawyers are going over the joint venture agreement,” he said. “Then, when we’re comfortable with that, we’re going to start a referendum process.”

CCAB CEO and president Jean Paul Gladu conceived of the development corporation award, now in its second year. He said bands like PIB prove that the “artificial glass ceiling” can be shattered and show other First Nations across Canada that they are capable of producing large infrastructure, resorts, golf courses and wineries.

He said an independent award jury was struck by the PIBDC’s willingness and ability to build relationships with outside partners.

“The PIBDC is not the largest from a financial-bottom-line perspective, but what really stood out is how they are building a physical bridge, a social bridge and a community bridge between the PIB and the municipality,” he said. “They’re inspiring their community to take up the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Canada’s business community needs to be celebrating these First Nation development corporations, Gladu said. “We need to change the conversation in this country about what aboriginal people are, what we represent and how we’re going to move forward together.”