Working Within Community and Place to Grow a Small Business

Bella Bella

Aerial shot of coastline of Bella Bella

At the centre of the Heiltsuk First Nation territory, lies the small town of Bella Bella. Previously an old logging and fishing town, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council has been looking for ways to diversify the economy by increasing tourism to the area. This strategy aligns with the interests of returned Bella Bella locals Cliff and Ramona Starr. Through an understanding of the local economic environment, partnerships with the Tribal Council and support from various organizations, the pair have opened and have now expanded their accommodation business.

The Challenge

With the decline of natural resources extraction in the region, creating jobs for local community members based on principles of sustainability has been the priority of the Tribal Council and their external Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation. This supportive environment contributed to entrepreneurs Cliff and Ramona returning to the community after 11 years to open Bella Guest Cabins in 2014. While opening a business in a geographically isolated Indigenous community comes with its own set of unique challenges, the couple saw opportunity in the growing ecotourism industry in the region and put in place a business plan to be a part of it.

The Strategy

Owners of Bella Guest Cabins standing outside of cabin

Through market research, the couple found that over 11,000 people travelled through Bella Bella airport during the peak tourist season, but due to the low number of accommodation businesses in the town, visitors had few options if they wanted to stay. The Starrs knew that Bella Bella was well positioned to capture some of the ecotourism market that was developing in the region, due to its first-rate sportfishing and heli-skiing resorts, as well as pristine natural environment and wildlife viewing.

From the beginning, the couple worked on building strong relationships with both the Tribal Council and community members to support their business plans. Developing any relationship takes time, and this is especially true for Indigenous communities where a long-term view and commitment to the local values are prioritised. The couple developed these strong relationships with councillors, community members and the head of the economic development corporation over several years of working in the community. This work paid off, with the Corporation providing written support for their financing applications and councillors and community members encouraging the Tribal Council to support the building of two self-contained cabins. In 2014, with funding from Coast Funds and other sources, the couple opened Bella Guest Cabins on a hillside lot in the town. 

In 2017, the business was thriving, and the couple wanted to expand. To do so, they needed capital. It was at this point that they leaned again on their relationships and network for advice and support. Knowing where and how to access capital is critical for small businesses that often need to look for options outside of the traditional banks. It was with support from the Tribal Council that the business got economic development funding from Coast Funds and loans from two Indigenous financing organizations Tricorp and New Relationship Trust, as well as from the Bank of Montreal. This mix of various funding allowed for the purchase of an additional cabin, built in Nanaimo and barged up to Bella Bella.


Picnic table outside of red ocean-side cabin

At the beginning of 2018, the final cabin was open for business and the results were immediate. Revenue increased by 35% in the 2018 season and the cabins were operating at near capacity during the peak tourist months and at 60-70% capacity in the off seasons, with positive reviews and a lot of return visitors.

The growing ecotourism industry in the area is bringing in visitors from all over the world looking to explore the region, and thanks to the Starrs and the support of the community, more people are able to stay and spend essential tourist dollars in Bella Bella. Their success is also generating greater interest in small business ownership from other community members, according to former Tribal Councillor Medric Reid, and the Starrs are often helping others with their business plans. The Nation is also putting its plan into action, diversifying the local economy and providing sustainable opportunities for members.

Lessons Learned

  • Be patient: relationships are at the centre of Indigenous community interactions and these take time.

  • Do your research: in small communities you need to find a niche in the market by talking with local government and business leaders, conducting market research and backing it up with a business plan.

  • Build a network of experts: opening and growing a business is challenging in the best of times. Find experts and supports wherever you can and use them – be it local or provincial governments, funding organizations, local businesses or professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

Story courtesy of Coast Funds, which supports First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii areas to achieve their goals for permanent conservation, stewardship, and sustainable economies.