First Nation, municipality profit from teamwork

What started as a dispute has turned into a bridge between communities

Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa, front left, and Tla’amin First Nation Chief Clint Williams, far right, sign a three-way agreement with Mayor Yongbo Zhao of China’s city of Zhuanghe aimed at improving trade and investment between the two regions | Powell River Peak

In April this year, the Tla’amin First Nation will officially become a self-governing nation under a new treaty that will roughly quadruple its land base, grant new forest tenures and shellfish leases and provide $29 million in cash and $11 million in economic development funds.

All of which means new economic development opportunities for the Tla’amin (also known as the Sliammon) and the City of Powell River.

“I think the spinoff will be huge for the Powell River area,” said Tla’amin Chief Clint Williams. “Anything that we develop will contribute, definitely, to the local businesses.”

Starting in the eighth year of the treaty, the tax exemption the Tla’amin now enjoy will begin to be phased out, so the Tla’amin will need to build its own tax base.

The treaty includes a provision that will allow the Tla’amin to acquire fee simple land and have it added to treaty settlement land. But doing that will require the co-operation of municipal and regional governments.

Fortunately, the Tla’amin and Powell River’s city hall already have a good working relationship. In fact, they’re business partners with a history of working together on economic development projects.

“It’s more than just co-operation – it’s full partnership,” said Scott Randall, economic development officer for Powell River.

For more than a decade, the two communities have worked together to develop a number of joint ventures, including commercial real estate projects through the Powell River-Sliammon-Catalyst Limited Partnership (PRSC).

But the relationship wasn’t always so amiable. Before 2001, the two communities had little to do with each other, even though they are just 12 kilometres apart.

That changed after a dispute arose over Powell River’s construction of a sea walk. The city had not shared its plans with the Tla’amin, whose members were upset to discover that the construction work had damaged Tla’amin heritage sites, including petroglyphs.

The city apologized for the oversight and invited the Tla’amin to become a partner in the project. A new era of co-operation was ushered in with the signing of a community accord in 2003.

“It got off to a rocky start but ended up creating a relationship between the Tla’amin leadership and city hall,” Williams said.

Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa said the partnership “has been used by [the Union of BC Municipalities], many other bands and towns and cities and companies as an example of how to work together in co-operation with your local First Nation.”

One benefit that better co-operation with Powell River has brought the Tla’amin is improved transit service. Run by the city, buses used to stop five kilometres short of Tla’amin’s town centre. Following the signing of the community accord, the city agreed to extend bus service into Tla’amin centre, and the Tla’amin now contribute to the city’s transit system.

When Catalyst Paper Corp. (TSX:CYT), which owns a paper mill in Powell River, was looking to dispose of surplus land to reduce its municipal tax burden, the Tla’amin, Powell River and Catalyst formed the PRSC, which resulted in the Tla’amin and Powell River obtaining 800 acres of land for economic development.

“The goal of the limited partnership has been to sell that land to an entity that will develop those properties and diversify the tax base for the city,” said Sliammon Development Corp. manager Kelly Rankin.

Most of the land has been optioned for a number of new business ventures, including a new international high school that will host students from China. Sino Bright School wants to build a school with projected enrolment of 400 students.

“The build on the school and dormitories will be in the $30 million range,” Randall said. “While fully operating, the revenues into the community or region would be about $10.5 million in new revenues. It would create about 107 direct jobs.”

The city and the Tla’amin are also partners in two run-of-river power projects, both of which will depend largely on BC Hydro before they can be developed, since they will need long-term power purchase agreements.

Since the signing of the community accord, the Tla’amin have taken a more active role in regional economic development, and now sit on the Powell River Regional Economic Development Society. Powell River city officials also sit on the Sliammon Development Corporation.

“It went from pretending we’re not there to inclusion and trying to work together,” Williams said. “Powell River’s economy is quite challenged. The biggest employer here – the [paper] mill – is constantly on the downside – and this town really needs an injection of some sustainable employment. What’s important for us is we need to build a tax base. What we’re looking at is potentially good sustainable businesses that we can develop in and around the Powell River area.” 

nbennett@biv.com