NW Week

BACK TO BUSINESS: Fort Simpson’s former mayor fulfills lifelong dream to buy local hotels

The time was right for Darlene Sibbeston to pursue a lifelong business aspiration, and the Covid-19 pandemic was no barrier.

The Fort Simpson resident and village’s former mayor started the new year with big plans for her new businesses, the Nahanni Inn and Maroda Motel, which she bought on Dec. 18. The Maroda has 16 rooms and the Nahanni has 32, along with a restaurant, dine-in lounge and bar.

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Owning the motel and inn was something she had wanted to do since she was 13, said Sibbeston, who has worked casually for the GNWT and also owns other properties in the Dehcho town.

“When I was a young girl in the early 1980s I walked by the Maroda two or three times a day. I was thinking ‘I would love to own that one day,’” she said.

“I guess I was always business-minded. Later on when I started working, I didn’t like people telling me what to do. I always had that vision of owning my own business and being my own boss.”

About three years ago, Sibbeston decided to pursue her dream and called the former owner of the two establishments, asking to buy them.

The response she received after multiple calls was “no.”

Things changed by summer 2020, when the pandemic was in full swing and the owner was nearing retirement.

“The business wasn’t doing as well but it was still running. I think he was probably here for over 20 years. He was ready to sell everything. We agreed on a price in June and (started) all the paperwork.”

The formal handover to Sibbeston was initially scheduled for September but was eventually pushed ahead to December. She declined to identify the former owner and how much the sale was for.

Now that she owns the accommodations, she plans to renovate many of the rooms, do a thorough cleaning and reorganize the menu at the Nahanni restaurant.

“We’ll lower the prices for the restaurant,” she said. “The biggest complaint I’ve heard was that the prices are too high. We’ve got some new kitchen staff and they’re working to switch up the menu, focusing more on hearty specials, like waffles for breakfast or big sandwiches. We want to be consistent. If you’re consistent with your meals then people will come back.”

Just weeks after taking over the businesses, she’s still surprised that she took such a big leap during the pandemic.

“It’s not an easy time. It’s kind of scary. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, I just did this.’ I’ve had some doubts, but I have to keep a positive attitude. I’m looking past Covid at what the business can offer the community.”

Even though Covid vaccinations have begun in the NWT, it’s uncertain when economic normalcy might return, and Sibbeston has her eyes wide open to the challenges ahead.

She’s not expecting full capacity at either business this summer, even if there is a significant number of NWT residents doing staycation trips.

“Maybe 50 to 60 per cent capacity, but that’s very hopeful,” she said. “Once I renovate a majority of my rooms and I get a full-on advertising campaign going I think I can reach that. There’s still travel in the community and to Fort Simpson. I’m still going to trust in that travel. I’m probably going to work with setting goals one year in advance.”

She hopes that in the months ahead she can access assistance from the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment for help with renovations to make her new direction for the Nahanni and Maroda proceed smoothly.

When she looks back at the last half year of successful efforts to purchase the businesses, Sibbeston said the hardest thing wasn’t so much the workload or finances but it was overcoming a struggle in her mind.

“I really think it’s just me. Getting over my fear of failure,” she admitted. “I’ve got some really good staff who’ve been here for quite a while. They’re willing to take the business in a great direction. With them on staff it’s making it much easier than I would’ve thought.”

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