It’s something chiefs Ron Sam and Andy Thomas have been waiting for for more than 10 years.
In 2005, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations jointly purchased the land at the Westbay Marina RV Park from the federal government, inheriting a lease to the current tenant in the process. But now that lease is set to expire in the spring of 2017, allowing the two nations to take control of the property for the first time.
“We have big plans. For us, it’s one of our first real economic ventures together with Esquimalt Nation, so we’re pretty excited about it,” said Sam, chief of the Songhees Nation, noting the potential to link the park with tourism in the Inner Harbour and add a cultural component as well.
“I think it’s a perfect opportunity…We’re looking for the best and fastest way possible to move our community forward and if it takes purchasing land in our traditional territory, then that’s what we have to do.”
According to a letter to Esquimalt council in November, the nations will continue using the land as an RV park, but will bring it up to a higher, modern standard, with services upgraded to handle a wide range of recreational vehicles.
A two-level amenities building with showers and a club house will be added, noted Sam, and the guardhouse in front of the RV park could be turned into a store or cultural interpretation centre.
Construction can’t begin until the lease expires in March, but the nations are already working on design plans with a push to have the park re-open for the summer season.
Thomas, chief of the Esquimalt Nation, is already tingling with excitement, noting it’s an economic opportunity for the community of about 250 people where 60 per cent are under the age of 16.
“We’re not invisible anymore and we have an opportunity to be part of the economy now and train some of our young people how to look after business, make it grow and to be able to make business decisions,” said Thomas. “I think that’s important because we’ve been marginalized for this long and it’s time for us to come out and make the right moves and the right decisions.”
But not everyone is happy. Mark Lindholm has owned and leased the park since 1997, and is disappointed his business will be forced to shut down at the end of February.
He isn’t surprised the lease wasn’t extended given the ongoing negotiations since 2005, which is why he didn’t invest heavily in the park during the last several years. A few long-term employees who lived in the park have already moved on, added Lindholm, and the rest of its population consists of travellers from all over North America, including many retirees who come during the winter months.
“Everyone is really disappointed. It’s (First Nations upgrading the park and carrying on) not a huge negative, it’s just that things are turning on in a different form,” said Lindholm, who has a few real estate projects in the works for the surrounding neighbourhood.
“We had planned to do that (upgrade the park) all along, but we got thwarted by the fact the First Nations ended up acquiring the property and won’t renew the lease….It’s very frustrating, but this is the world we live in now.”
Situated right on the harbour, the Westbay Marina RV Park opened in 1986 and was built in response to tourism during Expo 86. Plans for the RV park won’t affect the adjacent Westbay Marine Village.