Welcoming the World
Once again, the Membertou Mi’kmaw Community has shown itself as a leader in business development in the Sydney area, benefiting the local Mi’kmaw and non-Mi’kmaw business community of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
In June, the band broke ground for the Membertou Business Centre, an approximately 33,000-square-foot mall, located on the site of a future “connector road” through Membertou, linking the Sydney Harbour area to Hwy 125.
The centre is described as an “incubator mall”— in addition to space for established commercial and professional offices, it will also have smaller units geared for fledgling entrepreneurs.
“The 1,000-square-foot incubator spots are perfect for new businesses that want to get started in a professional environment, or home-based entrepreneurs who are ready to grow,” says Bill Bonnar, Manager of Special Projects and Commercial Real Estate for the Membertou Band.
“It’s great for Membertou as it creates a centre for people to go, and it’s great for the area as it provides a new kind of business centre space,” says Bonnar.
All the units have their own store front and drive-up customer parking. That appealed to potential tenants, says Bonnar, and he didn’t have trouble filling the space. “At this point,” he says, “about 80 per cent of the commercial space is rented.” On the small business side, a Mi’kmaw craft shop and a hair salon have each booked a unit.
“The chief is always saying ‘See a need and fill it,’” says Bonnar. “That’s what we did here.” The mall is part of an overall development plan for a business park in Membertou.
Chief Terrance Paul, in his 25th year as leader of this 1,200-member band, has worked with council and residents to make Membertou not only a self-sustaining community, but also a vital part of the greater Sydney area. The results seen today have their roots in work done years ago.
In the 1990s, the band developed a plan to help get Membertou on a solid footing. They invited talented people from across Canada to come work here. They ensured transparency and accountability, and in 2002 became the first Aboriginal community in the world to achieve ISO certification. They opened an entertainment centre, bringing in a new revenue stream. And, they looked for ways to welcome others to the community, as business investors and partners, as clients, customers, employees and visitors.
Chief Paul says attaining the internationally-recognized ISO certification was a big help in securing outside investors. “That raised our credibility,” he says. “Companies know that to get this certification, you really have to get your administration and management processes in place.”
And, he says, benefits were quick to appear. “Right after we got our certification, we had an aerospace company express interest in partnering with us in a bid for a manufacturing contract.”
Even though that particular bid was not successful, Chief Paul says it still raised the profile of Nova Scotia and Membertou continues to pursue partnerships with both local and international connections. Last year, they hosted a wind turbine manufacturing group from Spain. “We are exploring partnerships,” says Chief Paul, “and the Basque people are in the forefront in manufacturing.”
In 2004, the band completed the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre, one of its most visible achievements. At 47,000 square feet, it’s the largest convention centre in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax.
This culturally-unique centre, with its walls of windows, variety of meeting spaces, Mi’kmaw cultural display, and Great Hall seating up to 900, is not only a conference venue, says the Chief, but a place worth the trip just to have a look around or to enjoy the restaurant.
“We have a beautiful building here. It’s been a focal point for all of Cape Breton,” says Chief Paul.
The trade and convention centre is also a perfect venue for special events. Artists like Tommy Hunter, Bachman Cummings and Gordon Lightfoot have appeared here. “And we are the centre that people think of first for comedy,” says General Manager Donald Davis, who books more than 10 Yuk Yuks comedy shows a year.
For special events, the centre’s big competitive advantage is their half-million-dollar sound system. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” says Davis. “When a band comes in they don’t have to transport a lot of equipment with them. And we have the technical expertise on-site to run it.”
The catering kitchen is also high-tech. “We invested close to $1 million about a year ago to upgrade our catering,” says Davis, which included installing two Rational-brand ovens.
These professional ovens hold up to 80 plates each on metal racks close to six feet high. Using the Rational system, the chef and staff have more flexibility to prepare parts of the dinner in advance. Food is cooked and quickly chilled, then arranged on plates, ready to be heated just moments before serving.
“In catering big events, timing is everything,” says Davis. “We can serve 600 to 800 meals easily.”
Over the past two years, the trade and convention centre has achieved 20-30 per cent revenue growth, says Davis. The key, he says, is diversification.
“Catering is our bread and butter,” he says, but adds that the variety of services — meetings, catering, restaurant, special events and gift shop — work together to make the operation a success.
Chief Paul says the trade and convention centre welcomes over 900 groups a year and is a model for business development in Membertou.
“It’s helped Membertou itself be recognized by the outside world as a very progressive community,” he says. “It shows that whatever job we are asked to do, we get it done, and done right.”