On the verge of a boom, business struggles in Watson Lake

WATSON LAKE A Watson Lake Chamber of Commerce question landed like a grenade at the feet of Premier Dennis Fentie.

WATSON LAKE

A Watson Lake Chamber of Commerce question landed like a grenade at the feet of Premier Dennis Fentie.

“Recently, a long-established Watson Lake business was denied consideration for financing by a branch bank in Whitehorse,” said chamber president Dave Kalles,  reading from his notes during a candidate forum.

“The reason given: Watson Lake is a depressed area.”

Kalles turned to the four candidates.

“What ideas do you have to spread the Whitehorse economic boom to other areas of the territory?

“First, Mr. Fentie.”

Pulling on 10 years of political skills, Watson Lake MLA Fentie dodged the bomb by denying its existence.

“We should put this in context: Watson Lake was a depressed area; that is somewhat changed today for the positive,” he said before about 70 Watson Lakers gathered in the local high school auditorium.

“I myself, being in small business for many years, know the challenges of financing risk capital with financial institutions.

“However, that’s improving. In discussions with many banks recently, they are increasingly allowing more and more risk capital to flow.

“Secondly, we as a government have set up another program with Dana Naye Ventures which targets small business to ensure that they have access to risk capital.”

Fentie ignored the fact that, despite his alleged pull with the banks, a prominent but unidentified Watson Lake business was closing.

Instead, he debunked the Whitehorse boom.

Sure, the Canada Winter Games are driving the construction industry, and major chains like Canadian Tire and Metro Chrysler are building new stores in the Yukon capital, said Fentie.

But there’s new economic activity all over the territory, including Watson Lake, he said.

Fentie listed the Cantung tungsten mine in the NWT as a job producer in Watson Lake.

He predicted $100 million will be spent on mining exploration in the territory this year, up from $6 million in 2002.

“There are many things happening; that’s why we’re searching for workers.

“Same story in Mayo, Dawson City, Pelly — everywhere you go in the territory, there are people now working that a few short years ago were not.

“I would not call this a boom, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve got a long way to go to sustain a long-term, vibrant economy.

“This trend has just started. The work has begun, but there is much more to do.

“That’s where continuity and political stability become such an important part of the equation.”

So came Fentie’s plug for re-election.

Monday’s event was, after all, an all-candidates forum held a week before polls open to determine if Fentie’s Yukon Party government should be returned, which would make it the first government in more than 17 years to win a second mandate.

During the forum Fentie’s three opponents — Liberal Rick Harder, New Democrat Rachael Lewis and independent candidate Dale Worsfold — pledged to bolster the 1,500-person town’s prosperity, but offered different takes on its current state.

“Times are tough here,” said Lewis, the only candidate who does not live in the riding.

“The Yukon Party’s vision is still based on the big gamble — a pipeline, a railroad and other big projects, such as the winter Games and the athletes’ village.

“And they keep waiting for the million-dollar deal instead of trying to make a million dollars $1 at a time, like entrepreneurial small businesspeople do.”

***

Archie Tannoch is pleased with his situation.

“I’m doing pretty well for myself,” said the local businessman, gesturing to his fully loaded duel pickup truck he pegged at $70,000.

Watson Lake is prospering, despite what you hear, he said in a thick brogue.

“It’s not what a lot of these people try to picture it as.”

Tannoch owns two businesses in Watson Lake: the Downtown RV Park and Archie’s Fast Foods, where he mans the grill himself.

He came to town 16 years ago and built his businesses with a work ethic he’s quick to extol.

“I offer better service, better marketing. I’ve got nine webpages.

“(Customers) get me through my marketing. And I get them.”

He gets the seasonal RV traffic going both ways through the ‘gateway to the Yukon,’ and claimed to have 45 bookings for 2007.

And he now keeps his fry shop open year-round.

Both businesses display prominent Yukon Party election signs adjacent to the Alaska Highway. At election time, Tannoch is one of Fentie’s most prolific footsoldiers. He’s also running to become the town’s mayor on October 19.

For Tannoch, free enterprise is “the best thing going.”

He’s never had his hand out, never looked for government money, he said, proudly.

“You know what happens when you’ve got your hand out all the time? You get that,” he said, nodding to the neighbouring property where drunken laughter came drifting from some dilapidated log houses.

The property is owned by the Hougen family, but no one lives there, he said.

Instead, they become party houses.

“I feel sorry for them,” said Tannoch with a small smile, his blue eyes wide.

“It concerns me. When they become a nuisance, they’re picked up.

“I can’t change them. Can their own government change them?”

***

It’s no secret that Liard First Nation chief Liard McMillan advised his citizens — more than 500 of them — to vote against Fentie.

In a September 20 letter, chief and council urged Liard citizens to “vote against Dennis Fentie” for several reasons.

First, the Yukon government rejected more than one Community Development Fund application to build a new skating rink in Liard, even though Fentie lobbied for the project as an opposition MLA.

Second, a dangerous bend in the Campbell Highway next to the First Nation’s band office has been the site of several serious automobile accidents over the years, and needs to be re-aligned.

Fentie has promised to do it as soon as Shakwak projects in southwest Yukon are completed.

Third, social assistance payments to the First Nation from Ottawa are tied to territorial rates, and they haven’t been raised in 15 years, said McMillan.

“The Indian and Northern Affairs website says that their SA rates will match YTG’s,” he said.

And though Liard citizens don’t want to be on social assistance, their payments are a driver for the local economy, said McMillan.

“We did approach First Nations, including Liard First Nation, on raising social assistance rates,” said Fentie on Wednesday.

“We did not receive a very positive response from Liard First Nation.”

Perhaps that’s because McMillan feels the Fentie administration has acted in bad faith.

Two important government-to-government initiatives have lapsed, said McMillan.

The Kaska Bilateral Agreement that Fentie negotiated in 2003 gave the Kaska Tribal Council, of which the Liard First Nation is a member, the opportunity to proceed with economic resource development, such as timber and oil and gas.

The agreement lapsed in 2005.

And the Kaska Forest Stewardship Council was negotiating an annual allowable cut in the region, but the government failed to sign off on the deal before the election. It wants to talk more.

Along with the White River First Nation, the Kaska nations are the only Yukon aboriginal groups that don’t have a settled land claim with Ottawa.

At present, Ottawa has no mandate to negotiate with the Kaska — something that Fentie often cites as the reason for the Kaska’s lack of progress.

“Unfortunately, settlement of the land claim did not transpire and we did not get results there,” said Fentie.

As well, the Kaska are suing Ottawa, added Fentie.

The Kaska believe the Umbrella Final Agreement forces them to “surrender our rights, title and interests to our lands,” and is challenging Ottawa in Supreme Court, said McMillan.

But that shouldn’t matter, when it comes to the sharing of Yukon’s wealth, particularly transfers from Ottawa, he said.

“The current government is putting us at ransom to sign a land claim.

“(Fentie) says that we are Ottawa’s responsibility, and we think that is evidence of the bigotry that exists in YTG.

“He’s got a $495 million surplus and he can’t meet the infrastructure needs of his own community.”

Recent estimates peg the territory’s accumulated surplus at $451 million.

On Thursday, Fentie sent a letter to Kaska citizens asking them to remember his government transferred a parcel of land worth $97,000 to Ottawa, to be held in trust for the construction of a new administration building away from the treacherous Campbell Highway corner.

That’s Liard settlement land, therefore there’s no Yukon financial commitment, noted McMillan.

***

The Liard First Nation isn’t the only group struggling in Watson Lake.

The chamber of commerce would not reveal which local business was denied bank financing, but it’s commonly known that Napa Auto Parts is shutting down.

The proprietor confirmed this, but declined comment.

The restaurants inside two of the town’s hotels — the Gateway Motor Inn and the Belvedere – rotate their schedules so that kitchen staff are not working at the same time, to save money.

At least one of the hotels, the Gateway, is owned by Energy Minister Archie Lang.

“In plainest terms, (the economy) is the shits,” said Werner Schneeberger, proprietor of The Source in Watson Lake’s highway-side strip malls.

“At present, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Schneeberger has lived in the Yukon for 40 years, and in Watson Lake for the last 15 years.

The most significant economic drawback is the lack of air transport between Watson Lake and Outside, he said.

“If we want to go out, we have to go to Whitehorse.”

The government has been spending big money to maintain the airport and it can handle a 737, said Schneeberger.

But there’s no regular service to Watson Lake.

Schneeberger has heard rumour of an mining boom, and he wouldn’t mind seeing one.

But his business has been doing well ever since The Source took over from Radio Shack.

“New product, new customers. We’re doing great.”

Still, the government has been “sitting on their butt” when it should have been developing apprenticeship programs, said Schneeberger.

“I’ve been in business long enough to know what’s going on.”

Across the highway at Tannoch’s restaurant, a Quebecois man named “Coyote” described the Watson Lake economy with a downward slash of his hand.

“I’ve been here six years and this town has been going down like that,” he said.

“Now we’re losing Napa. It’s really going to hurt all those other shops here.”

However, Coyote is always working.

He spent some time logging “down south,” and he predicts something good will come of a forestry project he’s working on with local businessman Roger Cornielson, who received a timber permit in 2005 to cut 340,000 cubic metres over 10 years and use the scraps to make fuel logs.

“It’ll be enough to keep us surviving,” he said.

There seems to be ample opportunity to survive in Watson Lake.

There were 36 jobs available as of October 2, posted on the job board at Watson Lake Community Employment Services.

They were mostly clerk and cook jobs, but forestry technicians, heavy equipment operators and a diamond driller’s assistant were also needed.

Local trades people have been working on the Watson Lake multilevel health-care facility for two years, and it’s still in the early stages.

Modern regulations required a firewall to be erected between the existing hospital and the new facility, and the death of project manager Ivan Raketti earlier this year was a sad setback.

But the main reason the project is taking so long is because the government wanted to hire locally, said contractor Odin Hougen.

“There are administrative difficulties to doing it this way,” said Hougen as he watched his workers prepare a concrete tunnel that will connect plumbing, wiring and other things between the two buildings.

The government could have tendered the job to a big construction company and perhaps got it done sooner, he said.

“But this way, local people are working.”

***

Fentie’s pinning his hopes for Watson Lake’s economy on local training programs.

He wants more vocational training in Yukon high schools as an “alternate path of education, with a corresponding investment in space, equipment and teachers,” according to a Yukon Party release.

Watson Lake Secondary School principal Carson Atkinson has been working on the idea since he arrived here four years ago.

Atkinson described his school of 121 students in a whirlwind tour with a quick stop to view the shop class.

“We need kids to go directly into trades programs,” he said, watching students rebuild a diesel engine.

Clients could bring materials to the school vocational program, and the labour would be free.

“Programs have to pay for themselves,” said Atkinson, gesturing to a wooden canoe worth $1,600.

“Our goal is to get everyone into community college.”

Fourteen students graduated in June, and Atkinson named each one in a photograph and explained what they went on to do.

There is now a strict no-tolerance policy against drugs and alcohol at the school. The number of suspensions due to inebriation was steadily declining, to six last year from 36 three years ago.

“We offer a little hope and a lot of opportunity so that students can get a first-class education,” said Atkinson.

***

Hope is what keeps Ann Maje Raider around.

The executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society is a former chief who lobbies for the welfare of First Nations citizens who suffered abuse at residential schools.

Addiction — to narcotics, to alcohol, to prescription medication — is still a problem, said Raider.

“Unless we deal with the addiction, we won’t get anywhere.”

Raider’s society has limited resources.

Watson Lake needs a detoxification facility, like Whitehorse’s, and Kaska people must be involved, she said.

“That’s the path. It’s the only way. But YTG hasn’t put any money into treatment programs.”

A Community Development Fund application to build the facility was turned down in 2005.

The society is now applying to crime prevention programs, said Raider.

The government’s substance abuse action plan lacks cultural relevance, and would force people from outlying communities to move to Whitehorse, she said.

But the current government has been better than the former Liberal government at funding the women’s directorate, said Raider.

She’s hopeful.

“Of course,” she said with a little laugh.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t see hope.”

With files from Tim Querengesser.

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