If you build it, they will come

The Carcross Tagish First Nation has big plans for its little community. Justin Ferbey, CEO of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation, the First Nation's economic development branch, likens the plan to the famous Field of Dreams mantra.

The Carcross Tagish First Nation has big plans for its little community.

Justin Ferbey, CEO of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation, the First Nation’s economic development branch, likens the plan to the famous Field of Dreams mantra: If you build it, they will come.

“It” is a Main Street retail village – nine two-storey buildings, with space on the ground floor for shops, bars and restaurants, with residential condos and small business spaces above.

Eventually “it” will also include a motel, cabins and a resort.

What gives Carcross the advantage is that “they” have been coming for years.

“We already get about 100,000 people coming through town each year,” said Ferbey. “The only thing we need to do is make them stay a little longer.”

Ferbey is trying to build an economy in Carcross that will create jobs and business opportunities for the community.

Currently, most of the employment in Carcross is government-oriented.

“There’s very few private-sector jobs in Carcross. There is some summer stuff with White Pass, but there’s not a lot of other economic activity,” he said.

“If we’re not able to bring some business activity to Carcross, we’ll have a very hard time addressing some of the unemployment issues.”

A year ago, the doors to the Carcross Tagish government offices were barricaded by protesters.

The protest was sparked by the rising costs of the First Nation government’s financial assistance program.

A letter was mailed to citizens who received assistance, explaining the service was too expensive and asserting many recipients were able to work.

The hope is a healthier local economy and the jobs that come with it will help the First Nation government spend less on financial assistance, and free up more money for other programs.

Ferbey is planning to throw an economic Hail Mary pass in order to jump-start that economy.

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“We need to create a critical mass, meaning that if we just try to develop building-by-building, that’s not going to entice people to stay any longer.”

Currently, there’s really only one store in Carcross’ downtown area.

Adding just one more isn’t likely to entice tourists to spend more time in the community.

But three or four new shops and restaurants might make Carcross more than a quick pit stop on the drive between Whitehorse and Skagway.

Ideally, it would become a destination on its own, where people will want to spend the night, not to mention more of their tourism dollars.

Currently, there are no overnight accommodations in Carcross, said Ferbey.

“If we build motels first, they’re not likely to be filled up because there’s no reason for people to stay,” he said.

“So there are some timing issues. Just creating a Main Street is not going to change the world, but if you put it together with some more waterfront development, adventure tourism, motels and resorts…

“We don’t exactly have enough capital to build it all at one time. But if we have a thriving Main Street with a bar and restaurant and people are starting to think about staying the night, then that’s an opportunity for us.”

The proposed Main Street development would be located directly across from the visitors’ centre.

The First Nation negotiated the purchase of the land with the Yukon government as with any other private sector developer.

They will be looking for equity partners on the project, but at this point the Yukon government has not committed any capital.

Each of the nine buildings will cost roughly $500,000. Ferbey hopes to pre-sell some of the condos.

But it’s difficult to know how much these units might go for.

“We can’t actually know the market value because there are no condos in Carcross,” he said. “And maybe there is no condo market in Carcross and we won’t be able to find tenants.”

The biggest problem Ferbey faces is that building costs in Carcross are the same as those in Whitehorse, yet the rental rate is nowhere near that of the capital city.

“It’s a very difficult problem and one faced by all rural areas,” he said.

The management corporation is currently working on a Plan B in case the condos don’t sell.

“This Main Street thing might be the most incredible thing, but we can’t spend $5 million on something that’s going to give us a return of two per cent. We just can’t.”

Establishing Carcross as a mountain biking destination is another part of the management corporation’s plan.

The scenic and technically difficult bike trails on Montana Mountain have already started to cause a stir.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association inducted one of the paths into its Epic Trails rating. It is only the fifth Canadian trail to achieve this designation.

According to the corporation’s promotional brochure, around 1,500 to 2,000 visitors came in 2009 to use the mountain bike trails. And many more are expected in the future.

Contact Chris Oke at

chriso@yukon-news.com

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