First Nations plan to scrub multi-million debt quickly 

Chief Gibby Jacob not interested in developing Function gas station

Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations are carrying a $14 million debt on their state of the art cultural centre but confidential plans are in the works to have it paid off sooner rather than later.

Gibby Jacob, chief of Squamish Nation, said he hopes to have that debt retired within a few months but he would not elaborate further after Tuesday's Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.

"We hope by September-October to conclude what we need to, to pay the debt," said an evasive Jacob. "We'll make an announcement."

Speaking at the chamber luncheon in Istken Hall, fashioned after the traditional underground pit house of the Lil'wat people, Jacob gave a hearty welcome to those who attended the chamber luncheon.

He admitted that the two nations embarked on their cultural centre project during one of the biggest construction booms in the province.

"There couldn't have been a worse time to build anything," said Jacob.

Though there had been major contributions to the centre, most notably $7 million from the federal and provincial governments and $3 million from Bell, the cost to build continued to rise.

In the end the original $12 million budget more than doubled to $31 million, and the nations had to borrow almost half the money to finish the project in 2008.

That debt, he said, was not to impact any revenues flowing to the 3,600 Squamish Nation members, which has roughly 1,000 members on a housing wait list.

"We've got a lot of needs in our community," said Jacob.

The centre, said Jacob, is a legacy for future generations, negotiated just like the 300 acres of legacy lands in the Whistler area, which were given to Squamish and Lil'wat Nations as host nations for the 2010 Games.

One portion of legacy land is the parcel above the new Rainbow subdivision in Alpine. That land is zoned for 48 single-family homes and 41 townhouses. To date there has been no development on it.

Another portion of that legacy land is a five-acre parcel in Function Junction which has been zoned for a gas station and other commercial development.

The First Nations, however, may not develop that long-awaited second gas station in Whistler.

"We're not in the gas station business," said Jacob. "We've got better and bigger things to do.

"We've got (the land) zoned... What we've done is created the value in the land. If we don't get a partner or we choose to sell it, the value's there."

The charismatic chief touched on several topics during Tuesday's keynote speech. But his pride in the centre was obvious. He called it very expensive and very stylized, but well worth it.

"The end result was worth all the pain, all the blood, sweat and tears," said Jacob.

He also sees it as an important legacy to leave behind for future generations.

"Obviously we're in tough times like everybody else," he said.

"(The centre will) be hopefully one of the stand-outs on a go-forward basis."

It also has a secondary role, he said: "To show the world that we're still here, that we're thriving."

Their language and customs have been on the verge of extinction and now are coming back. Children are learning the language in pre-school through to high school and customs like wool weaving, which had disappeared for 70 years, are now on the rise. Five years ago, through a grant from the Royal Bank of Canada, two people began traditional wool weaving in the community. Now over 300 people practice.

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