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Utes go high-tech with new business

Data-processing company could create 300 jobs within a year

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — A new business venture of the Ute Indian tribe fits Gov. Mike Leavitt's plans to bring high technology into rural Utah through his Silicon Valley Alliance.

Leavitt traveled to Fort Duchesne Wednesday for the dedication of Uinta River Technology and congratulated Ute leaders on the creation of a company that could bring 300 high-tech jobs to the economically depressed Uinta Basin within a year.

"This is just a stunning example of the way people can work together," Leavitt told about 175 people gathered for the official launching of the new business. "It just makes sense. It provides more than just jobs, it provides knowledge, self-sufficiency and a future."

"What this does is demonstrates our tribe's desire to enter the 21st century and to become players in the world of technology," said Forrest L. Cuch, executive director for the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute tribe. "It's quite a tribute to our leaders and our people. It's in line with the governor's Silicon Valley Alliance. It's very timely."

Uinta River Technology opened its doors on the Uintah/Ouray Indian Reservation in Fort Duchesne just a few weeks ago and already has obtained six data processing contracts. More contracts are on the table, waiting for the tribally owned and operated technology company to claim them once the paperwork is completed.

The company expects to fill its first 38 data entry positions by the end of the month. Lucrative federal government contracts for computer software applications are expected to follow.

"The amount of work available appears to be more than our current capacity," said John Felt, chief executive officer of Ute Tribal Enterprises, which oversees each of the tribe's businesses. "We have, and expect to continue to grow rapidly, prudently and profitably."

From the beginning the company aligned itself with strong partnerships provided by Oracle Corp. — the second-largest manufacturer of computer software in the world — as well as with Affiliated Computer Services, the largest data services provider in the world, said URT business unit manager Carey Wold. The two mentors have spent countless hours working with Uinta River Technology managers to help the tribe gain secure footing as it merges its traditions with technology, he said.

"I'm impressed with the facility and the enthusiasm of the staff," said Erin Lynch, national account manager for Oracle product sales. Lynch said she is "pushing some (procurement contract) deals" for Uinta River Technology with the U.S. Agriculture Department that she expects to be awarded soon.

The advent of high-technology jobs comes at a time when unemployment rates on the reservation in eastern Utah hover around 50 percent. Off the reservation, in Duchesne and Uintah counties, the jobless rate typically ranks among the highest in the state. The new company should benefit both tribal and nontribal members.

"It will help many people in the basin to become trained in a field that will bring new jobs, new skills, new processes, new employment opportunity and new technologies to our rural community," Wold said.

It wasn't without some trepidation, however, that the governing Ute Tribe Business Committee decided last October to commit $2.3 million in start-up money for their latest business venture. The committee spent months examining how each aspect of the project would impact the tribe.

"Whenever they are going to fund something that is worth millions, they look at it very carefully," Wold said.

But business committee Chairman Roland McCook said tribal leaders realize the importance of keeping up with changing times. "It's been a journey. Progress is here. There is a bonding here in the name of progress."

The tribe's financial allocation also included $200,000 for training programs, a critical need if the fledgling business is to succeed. The tribe has partnered with the Uinta Basin Applied Technology Center and Utah State University Uinta Basin branch campus officials to offer courses specifically designed to train prospective employees in software applications.

Cuch cautioned, however, that education and training programs must be stepped up to keep pace with the demand the tribe is already experiencing for a proficient work force.

"If they don't, this business will struggle," he said. "It's going to be a challenge. We've got to forget about the divisions and the conflicts of the past. The educational training component is very critical."

Around 135 people are currently employed by Ute Tribal Enterprises. In addition to Uinta River Technology, tribally-owned and operated businesses include Ute Plaza Grocery Store, Ute Petroleum with locations in Fort Duchesne and Myton, the Ute Tribe Feedlot, Ute Oil Field Water Hauling and Trucking services and Ute Finance Company, a rural business development and re-lending company that offers financial assistance to local entrepreneurs.

According to Raymond Murray, manager for Ute Tribe Enterprises, this year the business committee has approved the establishment of two more tribally-owned businesses: a water bottling plant and a housing project that will construct, build and manage development of 30 new homes on the reservation.