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New grocery store in the Hub

Foodland will be pride of the Hay River Dene Reserve

Thorunn Howatt
Northern News Services

Hay River Reserve (Aug 26/02) - The Hay River Dene Band is taking a big step off the reserve. And it's hoping its footprints will be left all the way up the Mackenzie River Valley.

NNSL Photo

Foodland's manager Bill Naidu is getting ready to open up the off-reserve grocery store. The building is adorned with a view from the early 1940s. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

Foodland grocery store, opening at the beginning of September in Hay River, is the Hay River Dene Band's first solely-owned business venture off the reserve. It's located within the Town of Hay River's boundary, just off the Mackenzie Highway.

"There will be a deli, and a seating area for people that want to do some shopping and grab a sandwich or a pastry," said the band's economic development officer, Cynthia James.

"We have a large meat cooler. Our focus will be on bulk orders."

The store's target market includes aboriginal community members, barge orders and work camps from all over the North. People will be able to go into the store to shop or call in to an order desk.

Last year the band tried a pilot project and got a great response from communities. The test was run from a band-owned store located on the reserve.

"Actually, we were very busy," said James, explaining that customers came from as far away as Fort Good Hope and Tsiighnjik. In the future she hopes to take advantage of the growing oil and gas activity.

"It's an investment for the community but it is also something that provides employment."

The reserve store was a good learning ground and employed about a dozen people. So with that store staying open, the band will be a big employer in the grocery business.

The band's on-reserve store got a lot of business from people from other communities like Trout Lake.

"They buy big orders. They've been doing that on the store here on the reserve for years," said band consultant, Al Mailo.

The new store will be run under the Foodland banner. It belongs to the same franchise as Independent Grocers Association (IGA). There's an advertising and cost-saving advantage to belonging to the buying group.

The band has already had success in the grocery business. The reserve store's annual revenue grew from $400,000 per year to $3 million.

"We will have to retain six or seven people on the reserve store because we will still have the "tax-free" store on the reserve," said Mailo. The reserve store is popular for items like cigarettes and gasoline because it sells the items tax-free. "The new store will not be tax-free."

And unlike the reserve store, the new store will not be sheltered from property taxes.

But the band is confident it will be able to compete by offering above-average quality, selection and prices.

Earlier this year, The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs gave the band $441,000 to build the grocery store in an already existing abattoir building.

Renovations on the 6,000 square foot project began last year, after the reserve bought the abandoned property for $300,000.

The band wants to capitalize on the fact that the building was an abattoir while taking advantage of oil and gas activity -- they hope to specialize in large meat orders for camp catering.