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Thriving First Nation crunched for retail space

Wikiwemikong reserve sees business expansion

Wikwemikong First Nation has run out of retail space.

And that’s a great sign to the general manager of the unceded reserve's Wikwemikong Development Commission (WDC) on the eastern end of Manitoulin Island.

So many businesses have established themselves that there is demand again for more space, either for new startups or for existing ones to expand. 

“Our Big Wind business centre is full and the building that used to house the marina is full too,” said Marie Lynn Odjig. 

With demand for retail space going up, they are rethinking future development plans. 

Originally the community wanted to build an industrial park, but now they are considering rezoning the park to make room for both commercial and industrial tenants. They are hoping this will alleviate pressure on existing tenants that need room to grow.

First Tel, a telecommunications provider located in the Big Wind strip mall, has already expanded and hired more staff once.

“WDC received funding to construct wireless and broadband,” Odjig said. “It's only for 200 customers and we are already looking at expanding. There are a 1,000 households in Wikwemikong and it's a big land base. Our second phase is to provide services to all our membership (on the reserve). 

“If they expand again, they will have to hire three or four more people. The industrial park would be a good place for them.”

The commission conducted a survey a few years ago to determine how people were spending their money. It showed that an estimated $30 million was leaving the community due to people shopping elsewhere. Part of the solution was attracting a dollar store to meet consumer needs. 

They lobbied for funding for services and construction projects. 

When they opened the 9,000-square-foot Big Wind retail strip three years ago, it was fully occupied with tenants within a month. 

When they opened up leases for spaces in the Big Log marina, those filled up as well. 

“It was originally the marina, but the water levels went down so we couldn't operate a marina, so we opened up leases,” she said. 

Odjig explained with a chuckle they have had some obstacles, both human and natural, while building for retail space. While building Big Wind, a huge wind storm blew down the wood frame of the building. 

“During the rebuild they ran a contest to name the building and the winner was Big Wind,” she said.

Overall, Odjig said she is very pleased with results of the campaigning and building to get more businesses up and running on the reserve. 

“We've completed what we wanted to do, now we are moving on to new projects,” she said.