Lisa Thurber had big plans for her small Enterprise business.
In 2014, she cashed in her pension to purchase what would become Lisa’s Place, the only gas station in the South Slave hamlet of about 120 people.
With plans to renovate the gas bar, Thurber — an Indigenous business school graduate born and raised in the territory — dreamed of turning the business into more than a service station and motel: she envisioned it becoming a tourism hub situated at a key junction between NWT communities.
To get the business off the ground, she sought support from the Northwest Territories Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC), a GNWT Crown corporation and a subsidiary of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI).
That’s when Thurber says she was led down a “path of paperwork” lined with bureaucratic red tape and empty promises, ultimately leading to Lisa’s Place being foreclosed and auctioned off for sale last year, a move she called sudden, unfair and unwarranted.
“They failed me. They absolutely and utterly failed me,” Thurber told NNSL Media in a recent interview.
According to Thurber, she received a $585,000 mortgage from BDIC in 2014 after her initial business plan and request for $899,000 was rejected.
That wasn’t enough to pay for renovations and other expenses. She had to take out a $100,000 operating line of credit from the bank. In the years that followed, Thurber employed a staff of a half a dozen workers but struggled to pay off her debts.
Thurber said Lisa’s Place was hit hard by the high cost of trucking water from Hay River — she was “literally flushing money down the toilet.” Steep prices associated with bringing in beverages and cigarettes, coupled with the territory’s minimum wage increase, further hurt the business, she said.
Thurber was soon forced to scale back the store’s operating hours and closed the business for a few weeks in January 2019 while she sold off some equipment to try to make ends meet. That same month, Thurber said she was notified by the BDIC of the business’ foreclosure. The foreclosure was enforced by a NWT Supreme Court order. She said she was behind by only two monthly payments.
“The government used the (January 2019 closure) as a way to say, ‘she’s abandoned the business.’ That was not true. There were no negotiations, no discussions. They just foreclosed on me,” said Thurber, adding ITI cited her lack of audited financial statements as a factor in the foreclosure.
In arrears before Lisa’s Place was shut down, Thurber said she was given far less time to repay her debts than other indebted NWT businesses. She pointed to Concept Energy Services Ltd., ordered last year by a judge to repay nearly $2 million after the company defaulted in 2017 — stemming from a BDIC loan in 2011. The company is owned by Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson.
Seeking accountability from the government, Thurber wants to know why her business — an Indigenous-owned tourism attraction that created jobs in the community — was foreclosed on when others enterprises in arrears haven’t been. She added that Simpson has been supportive of her efforts to get answers from the GNWT.
“Why me? Why am I being punished? I should have been a success story for the BDIC as an Aboriginal woman in the tourism business,” she said. “My vision was to put Aboriginal tourism on the map, and I did. (Lisa’s Place) increased tourism in Enterprise. I increased employment, I brought community events to the community. I had community support,” continued Thurber.
Thurber said her experience speaks to an overall lack of support and guidance from the government — at odds with the department’s mandate to nurture Northern businesses.
“The government isn’t running programs, they are running a high-priced loan sharking office,” said Thurber.
Legal action never ‘taken lightly or in haste’
While confidentiality rules prevent BDIC from commenting on the foreclosure of Lisa’s Place, Industry, Tourism and Investment spokesperson Drew Williams said the Crown corporation explores all avenues and remedies before taking legal action against a client.
“BDIC does not ever ‘want’ to take legal action against a client and certainly the decision to do so is never taken lightly or in haste. As a rule, they will try to work with borrowers that are in arrears as much as reasonably possible to prevent such actions,” stated Williams in an email, adding legal action is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Payment deferrals and loan restructurings are mulled before that happens, he added.
“If a borrower has a reasonable proposal, the court will generally extend a deadline for the proposal to be considered,” continued Williams.
Pointing to annual reports from BDIC, Williams noted that along with BDIC’s $585,000 loan, Lisa’s Place received a $20,000 contribution from the Crown corporation plus a contribution of $8,850 from ITI’s Support for Entrepreneurs and Economic Development Policy (SEED).
‘I need to fight for other businesses’
Apart from leaving Enterprise without a service station along a highway where they are scarce, Thurber, now bankrupt, said Lisa’s Place has had an immense impact on her personal life.
“Because we (me and my children) lived at the residence of the business. The foreclosure left us homeless for a few months. My kids still refer to Enterprise as home. They ask if we will ever be able to go back.
“I should have been able to pass the business onto my children,” she said.
Thurber wants her file to be reviewed. But most of all, Thurber said she wants to make sure other Northern businesses don’t have a similar experience.
“I want to make sure this brings some change for other Aboriginal businesses. I need to fight for other businesses. I might not be able to save me, but maybe I can usher in change.”