A new business incubator encourages members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to become independent entrepreneurs.
In downtown Warm Springs, a more-than-100-year-old historic building, once used to distribute food to tribal members, is getting a face-lift.
Through a mix of state and private funds, the 2,500 square-foot Old Commissary building will be renovated to house a co-working space for 15 to 18 business owners, as well as provide outlets for four or five retailers.
The Old Commissary building, Warm Springs (Credit: Oregon.gov)
The initiative is part of an effort to diversify the economy and employment on the Warm Springs reservation, where the unofficial jobless rate is estimated to be around 50% to 60%. One-third of families on the reservation live on less than $25,000 a year.
Finding ways to create new jobs has taken on a new urgency for tribal members. Two large employers have closed over the past two years — the Warm Springs Forest Products Industries, a lumber mill that shut in 2016, and the Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa, which went out of business in 2018.
The focus on encouraging small-business ownership and entrepreneurship is an important shift for the tribes, which have traditionally relied on large employers, such as casinos, and the public sector for jobs.
More federal dollars are being directed to small business incubators on tribal lands. A recent round of USDA rural business development grants awarded incubator funds to the Klamath Tribes in Chiloquin and Native American businesses in rural Marion County.
“It is a catalytic kind of moment,” says Michael Held, director of rural economic and policy services at Rural Development Initiatives. “The shift to entrepreneurship won’t happen overnight, but it is a good step in the right direction.”
On the Warm Springs reservation, only 12 retail businesses operate in an area spanning 1,000 square miles with a population of around 5,500 people. The closest town of Madras, located 24 miles south of Warm Springs, has a similar-size population but 30 times as many businesses.
The tribes have developed ideas to diversify their economy but with limited success. Two years ago tribal members sought to create a marijuana grow operation on the reservation, which was expected to generate up to $27 million annually. Roderick Ariwite, CEO of Warm Springs Ventures, a company created to explore business opportunities for the reservation, says the tribes were a little too late to the sector, which is now saturated with cannabis product.
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The company has now turned its attention to the possibility of creating a hemp-production facility. “We are doing due diligence to see what revenue we can generate from hemp,” says Ariwite.
The tribes are also seeking a viable business opportunity to develop unmanned aircraft, or drones. But that business idea has been hampered by competition from larger companies and regulatory restrictions, says Ariwite.
Having a designated space to encourage small business creation is a necessity on the Warms Springs reservation, where few buildings are available for offices or retail stores.
Until 2016 the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal branch of the Department of the Interior, had control of the land and buildings in downtown Warm Springs. The underfunded bureau let the buildings fall into disrepair. More than 20 structures were recently demolished because of asbestos and lead-paint contamination.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs negotiated to take over control of the land in downtown Warm Springs in 2016. This gives the tribes more autonomy over creating business opportunities. But infrastructural challenges have emerged that could hamper development; the antiquated water pipes and sewers underneath downtown are in need of repair. An estimated $84 million is required to fix the underground system.
Rendering of the Warm Springs downtown master plan (Credit: Oregon.gov)
The Old Commissary building is one of the few buildings in downtown Warm Springs that the tribes kept. The new business incubator will serve as an anchor for tribal members to learn about running a business and to gain skills in finance.
The Warm Springs Community Action Team, a nonprofit in charge of the business incubator, runs business-development courses for tribal members. Executive director Chris Watson hopes the business center will persuade drivers passing through to think of Warms Springs as a place that is worth stopping to visit.
“I really think people will be willing to stop if there is something to see and eat. We want people to start to see Warm Springs differently — that it is not just place to blast through at 60 miles per hour,” says Watson.
To make the business incubator more visible to tourists and drivers passing through on Highway 26, the main route running through the reservation, planners aim to lift the Old Commissary building from its foundation in downtown Warm Springs and place it next to the freeway.
Public restrooms and signage will act as an incentive for drivers to stop and spend time on the reservation. Travel Oregon provided a grant to develop roadway signs and an electronic kiosk that will describe the history of the building.
The ground floor will house a cafe as well as a store selling tribal arts. A new nonprofit, Tananáwit, will help to get the arts store up and running. Leveraging the tribes’ artistic heritage is a good way to draw passers-by into the incubator space, says Held.
“The tribes’ artistry and craftsmanship are really sought after from people coming through as well as internationally,” says Held.
The incubator project also envisions an outside pavilion with room for six to eight food trucks. Watson hopes to move an outdoor market, currently located in downtown Warm Springs, near to the business-incubator building.
The executive director hopes the Old Commissary building will act as a community meeting space. Few options exist, apart from the reservation’s casino, for tribal members to get together socially on the reservation.
“I hope that by creating retail and office space, community members will have a nice gathering space,” says Watson.
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The Warms Springs Community Action Team aims to open the business-incubator project by the end of May 2020. The initiative has so far attracted $600,000 in investment, which includes grants from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Collins Foundation and Business Oregon.
Full renovation of the Old Commissary building will require $1 million. An extra $1 million will be required for developing the outside pavilion and food-cart pod.
The creation of a small-business incubator may seem a small drop in a large ocean of economic challenges facing the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. But it is an important step in showing “change is possible,” says Watson.
“To see the community invested in this is really exciting,” adds Held. “It is a project that is driven by local people. There is a lot of excitement.”
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