Eel River Bar was a big winner at the 2016 Ulnooweg Aboriginal Entrepreneur Award show this past summer. The Osprey Truck Stop won the award for Aboriginal Government Enterprise of the Year, Tom Simonson of Tom Simonson Contracting won the Male Entrepreneur of the Year and Kimberly Cormier of Kimberly’s Salon & Spa won the Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. Sacha LaBillois, the Economic Development Officer (EDO) at Eel River Bar, is excited about what has been happening in the community during the past few years and their plans for the future.
“I nominated 2 of the 3 businesses that won awards at the Ulnooweg Entrepreneur Awards Gala,” said Sacha. “I nominated local entrepreneur, Kimberly Cormier, she’s been in business for 13 years running her hair salon and I recognized her hard work and thought that she should be recognized for it on a bigger scale. I also nominated our band business, the Osprey Truck Stop. The third business that won, Tom Simonson’s Contracting, was nominated by Tom’s wife, Jody Simonson. Overall, it was a good year.”
The Osprey Truck Stop is the main community business and serves between 500 - 800 customers every day. Established in 2003, it offers a licensed restaurant; a convenience store; a lounge, rest area, showers and laundry facilities for transport drivers; and gaming facilities.
“The Truck Stop has been very successful,” said Sacha, “we offer a wide range of services there. When we were planning the Truck Stop we looked at the competition nearby to see what they offered. At that time, you would typically see that truck stops were not accommodating the female market because typically, truck drivers are all men, but we said that were going to have both male and female shower facilities and a truckers lounge.”
The revenues from the Truck Stop and gaming allow the band to fund programs that are not covered under traditional funding sources.
“We have a great support system for our students,” said Sacha. “We help subsidize their education and living allowance. We also support recreation programs and have a lot of benefits for our elders, they go on annual trips and they get assistance for their power and services like lawn and maintenance. In addition, we fund AA programs and pretty much any kind of request that comes in which has no other funding.”
The local entrepreneurs in Eel River Bar are also contributing to the well-being of the community. Other businesses in the community include 2 lobster shops, a catering company, some housing and trucking contractors, Simonson’s grocery and the community daycare.
“Our local entrepreneurs really help the community out,” said Sacha. “Typically, they employ our community members and this helps the money to stay in the community. In addition, the band and community members go to our local business people for the services that we need before going outside of the community. I’d say the community is pretty tight-knit and people generally want to see each other succeed so there is a spirit of supporting each other here.”
Sacha recently hired an Economic Development Executive Assistant, Keisha Moffet, with the support of JEDI’s Aboriginal Internship Program (AIP) and the two of them are ready to help new entrepreneurs in their community.
When asked how a new entrepreneur would get started in Eel River Bar, Sacha replied, “First, they would normally come to see me and I can provide them with information on other organizations. I help them with their business plan, I help them make phone calls and appointments. Some people come in with everything done. I just assist in any way I can without sitting down and writing their business plan for them.”
Eel River Bar is currently in the process of developing an Economic Development Board to help move big community projects forward. They have been inspired by other successful First Nation communities to separate business development from local politics. The community is currently investigating economic development options in biomass, wind and solar but is also planning to expand the area around the Osprey Truck Stop.
“We have 80 acres of land by the truck stop to be developed,” said Sacha. “We will develop a commercial highway park; I envision fast food there, a coffee shop, retail, light manufacturing, and a boutique hotel. That will be the highlight of my career when I say that we have accomplished this. Currently, everyday my highlights are the little pieces that I work on that gets us closer to that goal.”
Sacha describes an EDO as someone who is willing to go beyond the typical job description and is capable of handling a variety of tasks. She’s learned to tailor new programs to fit with the available funding. She also attributes the success at Eel River Bar to a real team effort.
“The success of Eel River Bar is because of the Chief and Council who have the vision to carry forth, and the staff who assists with the running around and writing proposals. Each department comes together, to make things happen. Right now, Migaju house, a 12-bed home for kids and families at risk is a project that we are working on in our community. This initiative’s success comes from the Health Department, the Social Department and Economic Development all working together.”