Summit showcases non-gaming businesses | Local News

GRAND RAPIDS — Participants from around the Midwest discussed opportunities to diversify revenue streams and launch new investments for Native American sovereign nations.

The first Great Lakes Tribal Economic Summit took place on Thursday at Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business in downtown Grand Rapids.

The day-long event featured panel discussions from state and federal officials responsible for working with tribes and executives of Native-owned businesses.

Council member and citizen of the Hannahville Indian community of Potawatomi Alicia Bertrand attended with council members, Lexi Keshick Sr. and Chairperson Kenneth Meshigaud.

Bertrand was recently appointed to council and said she was there to better understand how their council can “invest more in the people and the community,” she said.

Issues she wants to tackle include recovery housing, construction of community buildings, and business ventures that will secure stability for future generations.

“There are a lot of barriers that tribes face, I am looking at how we can continue to move forward,’’ she said.

The importance of diversifying economies beyond casinos and hospitality fast-tracked many non-gaming investments and projects during COVID-19 pandemic.

All 24 casinos operated by tribes in Michigan closed voluntarily to halt the spread of the coronavirus, costing them millions of dollars. The steady flow of capital and projects was a key shift for resilient and dynamic economies of Anishinaabek tribes, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on casino gaming revenue.

Terri Fitzpatrick, executive vice president, chief real estate and global attraction officer at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said only a few tribes had economic development a decade ago. Native nations’ real shift of economic development activity started happening about five years ago, she said.

Joe Schultz, principal executive of Sault Tribe Inc., the independent business arm of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said that the holding company returned its first dividend of $3.2 million to the tribe in 2021.

The effort to establish Sault Tribe Inc. began in 2010 and in 2019 the Sault Tribe Board of Directors signed a resolution to appoint a corporate Board of Directors to Sault Tribe Inc. to diversify the tribe’s revenue stream through wholly owned businesses as well as joint ventures — particularly in the construction industry, and new ventures in the cannabis industry, including by leasing commercial property to multiple dispensaries in the Upper Peninsula.

President & CEO of Waséyabek Development Company, LLC, Deidra Mitchell said in the past 36 months, WDC and its subsidiaries have grown dramatically.

Mitchell reported over $50 million of capital towards economic development and will continue to deploy additional capital over the next five years.

“We are not a casino and we are not a private equity firm,’’ she said.

WDC is a 100-percent-owned economic development entity of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi that manages their non-gaming economic development activities.

In part, the investment strategy of the WDC involves acquiring companies and income properties throughout their target market.

Sovereign nations have also encountered the same widespread challenges of high construction costs, sourcing talent and long material lead times.

Representatives from several state and federal agencies discussed investments in Native communities and information for tribal leaders on how to best leverage funding programs.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration’s investment in Native communities in 2015 was “woefully low,” said Lee Shirey, an economic development administrator at the EDA..

Native-owned financial institutions said they are working to fill in the gaps of resources for Native entrepreneurs and business owners.

Jeff Bowman, president of Wisconsin-based Bay Bank, said a lack of Indigenous representation in financial services and banking institutions is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed.

Bay Bank is one of 18 banks certified as owned or led by Native Americans, which represent less than 1 percent of the total banks in the country.

Bowman said they operate as a community bank, and believes that banks can also focus on solving basic local needs such as housing.

“Every tribal community that I go to, we all have housing shortages, we don’t have enough houses,” Bowman said. “That’s what a bank should be doing. We’re going to take some of this funding and re-grant it to the tribes.”

Associate Editor of Tribal Business News, Brian Edwards said the focus of Thursday’s event was building networking opportunities among state and federal economic development officials and leaders from various Native American tribes across the Great Lakes region.

Edwards said though the event procured focus for the first time on the robust and growing economies from sovereign nations of the Great Lakes, there also needs to be a commitment for a summit that will have sole focus on Anishinaabek citizens with small businesses, organizations, nonprofits, and entrepreneurial work.

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