Nk'Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course

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'Gem' is part of Osoyoos plan for economic sustainability

OLIVER, British Columbia - Native people have always been entrepreneurs, wisely using their resources in innovative ways. When natural resources were altered drastically, and government handouts were substituted for self-sufficiency, that talent for innovation was needed even more - and it returned like a strong wind that lifted people out of poverty and dependency.

Nowhere is that force more evident than in the business endeavors of the 400-member Osoyoos Indian Band, or Nk'Mip (pronounced ''Inkameep''), as they are called in their native Okanagan language.

The Osoyoos Reserve in southern British Columbia encompasses some of the last large tracts of desert lands left in Canada. This northern section of the Great Basin Desert had been severely encroached upon by rapid urbanization and agricultural expansion.

In addition, the wild salmon that had been part of the band's lifeblood had almost disappeared due to destruction of habitat and dams that blocked their return to the Okanagan region's spawning grounds.

A development council was formed in 1992 to oversee the start of businesses that were independently owned by the band. Chief Clarence Louie has been adamant that the single most important key to First Nation self-reliance is economic development.

While all new ventures require some risk-taking, the band's winery, resort, new museum and golf course - which comprise its tourism sector - grew out of the thoughtful use of available resources that included a $11.5 million land claims settlement, small government loans, the use of strategic partnerships and 32,000 acres of land.

''We finally have a chief that made the decision to keep reinvesting our money,'' said Dave George, manager of the band's 18-hole championship Nk'Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course.

Louie made a decision to make investments rather than lump-sum per cap distributions. The golf course is now part of future benefits.

''The chief had a lot of pressures. We also had the right council to support his decision,'' George said.

The course is located in Oliver in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. It is a beautiful and practical addition to the Osoyoos Band Development Corp.'s slate of businesses, which includes its Nk'Mip Cellars, the Spirit Ridge Hotel Resort and Spa, an RV park and a cement company.

It has a full-facility pro shop, a driving range, putting and chipping greens, a practice area and three practice holes. The course has four different tees, each affording completely different approaches to the course, according to George.

The clubhouse facilities include a fully licensed lounge/bar, restaurant, patio, beverage cart, meeting area and a parking lot for RVs.

Nk'Mip Canyon was originally developed as a nine-hole club by a private group who leased the land from the band. When the club was put up for sale in 2001, the band bought it at the urging of a small group of members who had been avid golfers for more than 30 years.

The band added 13 expansion holes and renovated the original nine. The course can now hold its own with any course in Okanagan or any in Arizona, according to George.

''We optimized our dollars with budgeting and preplanning to know exactly what we wanted. We didn't hire any designers. A small group went out and hit balls, what you would call 'field design,''' he said.

Part of the course plays through groves of cherry trees. Surrounded by a panorama of vineyards, sage, stone and mountains, the course's desert climate makes play enjoyable almost year-round.

The course has been called a visual ''gem'' by enthusiasts who enjoy the forgiving nature of the original front nine holes in contrast to the toughness of the rest of the course.

''We used local people for construction - people who owned excavators. Most people have shapers. We made do with what the local help could round up,'' George said.

The project was able to put significant dollars into construction of the course itself without having to spend dollars upfront for a designer, George explained.

A number of variables have affected the economic success of the course, including the rise in the Canadian dollar and in the price of gas. There have also been hits of weather that were not conducive to golf, but the band is hoping for better weather this season.

In spite of these factors, the course averages about 32,000 plays per year and there is a healthy junior program for band families. All of the courses in the immediate area have formed a local marketing consortium, and the province's tourism department supports their promotion as well. The band's tourism sector also receives strong marketing support from town governments.

A lack of focus in the marketing efforts of other local and regional tourism organizations across Canada has also stunted the growth of newly built courses by First Nations bands, which would otherwise be flagships for local tourism development.

To delegates of the conference of Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers where he was named Economic Developer of the Year in 2001, Louie said, ''Being in business for aboriginal corporations is far more than jobs and revenue - it means supporting the very core of what makes up your community; to reinvest some of those profits back in your people, your programs and services; to improve the quality of life and retain your heritage.''