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Ute Tribe goes to work

Members creating a network of businesses to boost the Uintah Basin

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FORT DUCHESNE — Think of a cattle feed lot, a grocery store, a convenience store, a finance company, a water bottling plant and a housing development, then try to figure out a link among them.

The words "Ute Indian Tribe" probably don't come to mind.

But it should. Bolstered by a $125 million court settlement trust, the Utes are in the beginning stages of creating a network of varied businesses as a way to boost the economic and social well-being of not just tribal members but others in the sparsely populated Uinta Basin.

"One dynamic in play is that the tribe is taking its rightful place in the economy," said John M. Felt, CEO of Ute Tribal Enterprises, or UTE. "We have the resources and can take that strength and share it with the community. There will be benefits internally and benefits to the area's economic development."

The Ute Plaza grocery store was the first venture, in November 1998, and tribal officials acknowledge that UTE is only in the beginning stages of what someday it will become. The goals include economic development, increased business opportunities, and job creation, training and placement for tribal members.

"The aim is to provide opportunities for employment and economic sovereignty," said O. Roland McCook Sr., chairman of the Tribal Council.

It's a daunting task for a people besieged by a lingering reliance on government work and government assistance, failed business attempts, jobs that have generated little revenue back to the reservation, and unemployment rates often reaching 50 percent.

So far, UTE's activities are employing about 100 people, including 90 from the tribe. But tribe membership is about 3,200.

"The idea is to learn trades and skills and create a new economy on the reservation, while also generating a profit," Felt said. "The profits are to be used for developing education, health programs, dividends — whatever the tribal council decides to do with the profits."

One business-success strategy is to have diversified but linked companies. For example, one venture provides ice for the store, the finance company helps provide business loans to tribal entrepreneurs, and the grocery store sells feed lot beef.

In fact, a pound of Ute Premium Beef ground beef sells for 99 cents because, as the tribal literature says, "We own the land, we own the cattle, we own the grocery store. That's why we can sell it for less."

And that's without a sales tax. The tribe pays the 6.25 percent tax for all Ute Plaza purchases by non-tribal members (members do not pay sales taxes at tribe-owned businesses). Other lures for customers at the plaza include a weekly swap meet and Friday night outdoor movies.

Long-term plans call for making Ute Premium Beef as well known as other top-line beef in restaurants. The bottled water — fresh from the Uinta Mountains — is expected to eventually be available through a variety of channels, including grocery and convenience stores. That venture could be in operation by year-end, making the Utes the only Intermountain Indian tribe with a water bottling company.

Felt said the tribal leaders realize their products cannot make a profit if funneled solely through federal set-asides in which, say, water would end up at government parks and with other tribes.

"We've got to be part of the competitive market. We know we have a top-quality product, one that will provide jobs for tribal members," he said.

The tribe is armed with loads of money. A few years ago, it settled a court case with the federal government based on a claim that the government failed to carry out the promises made to the Utes to provide water reservoirs on several rivers.

Part of that settlement established a $125 million trust, and the tribe is relying on the interest — at least $10 million annually — to fund its business ventures.

That kitty was one attraction for Felt, who came on board as CEO in October after having been director of Deseret Industries for several years. Felt was familiar with the Indians because he spent summers in his youth on the Ute reservation as a youth counselor in their summer camps and had lived on other reservations, and his dad was director of American Indian studies at Brigham Young University.

"I felt Ute Indian Enterprises was a great opportunity for growth," Felt said. "For most companies, the problem is capitalization. That's not the problem here, so we can focus on job creation, job training and job development.

"If you can focus on that and not have to worry about capitalization, you can do a lot. And a lot of people in the basin say the Ute tribe has more economic development potential than any other group."

Not to mention the potential to boost the lot of tribal members, rejuvenating spirits as well as wallets.

"For whatever we do, there is a social cause and a profit motive," Felt said. "The social aspect has priority now."

McCook noted that matching jobs with workers' skills has been a challenge, and Felt said mentors in some positions are helping tribal members augment their abilities.

But tribal members certainly are interested, he said. "For every job we create, there are 10 people who want it, 10 who deserve it and one who will get it," Felt said.

One is Nelson Colorow, a janitor whose carpentry duties were curtailed by a leg operation. Colorow said his job allows him to meet lots of people, and he realizes his good fortune.

"Jobs are kind of scarce right now. Some people like to go into the city to find jobs or into government," he said.

But "the way I feel" is a big part of having the job. "It gives me a rush. It makes me feel good inside," he said.

A business committee and other organizational levels ascertain that business enterprises are viable before the tribe invests in them. Reviews by two independent counselors help ensure that.

"We knew there would need to be a lot of planning that had to go into this," said Roseline Taveapont, the tribal council's vice chairman. "In the past, when businesses were started, there wasn't a lot of planning and the businesses failed."

While UTE has had doubters, other businesses have wanted to be part of the organization's growth. Several have formed alliances to help UTE with, for example, distribution of the feed lot cattle, and UTE is interested in more. Its phone number is 435-722-3136.

The organization is battling long-standing shopping patterns and some marketing challenges, such as a small potential customer base, but McCook said he has heard nontribal shoppers appreciate what the tribe has to offer.

"At the grocery store, I heard a man say, 'The Ute tribe has supported the Uinta Basin for more than 100 years, and it's about time we supported them,' " McCook said.

"The opportunities are there. We've just got to stay focused and accomplish them. Then the community will come with us."

It will take years. The Utes are in the infant stages of what they believe will be a mature, prosperous operation.

"The Business Committee is blazing a trail," Felt said. "The benefits are 20 years away. You won't see many benefits for a while, but now is the time for the American Indian."

E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com