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Former Indian Affairs director taking Ute Tribe businesses in new direction

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — The marquee for Ute Plaza advertises the grocery store's newest offering: organic produce.

It's just one indicator of the changes being made by Forrest Cuch, the new CEO of Ute Tribal Enterprises.

The company operates the tribally-owned grocery store, two convenience stores, a bowling alley, a water truck company that serves the oil and natural gas industry, and a mothballed water bottling operation that Cuch plans to bring back online soon. The former director of the state Division of Indian Affairs has plans to launch other businesses, too.

"We see potential for a commercial district," said Cuch, who was appointed as CEO in August.

"We want to provide some retail space for some of our tribal members," he said. "We want to encourage entrepreneurism among our people."

Tourism will be another focus.

"We haven't done a great job of really developing the tourism industry in our area," Cuch said. "Or at least we have not connected with the other businesses and entities in the Uinta Basin.

"We want to make that connection and maximize tourism in our area," he added.

A member of the Ute Indian Tribe, Cuch was terminated by Gov. Gary Herbert in February after 13 ½ years as state director of Indian Affairs. The governor said Cuch was insubordinate and no longer represented his office effectively — claims Cuch still flatly denies.

The firing drew criticism from all five Indian tribes in Utah. Cuch considered remaining in private life to work on his foundation — Rising American Indian Nations, known as RAIN — but decided to take on the task of rejuvenating Ute tribal businesses that had stagnated over the past decade.

"I'm excited. I enjoy the challenge," he said. "More importantly, I'm having fun."

One of the most obvious changes for those driving through Fort Duchesne on US-40 is the renovation of Ute Lanes. The bowling alley will be completely remodeled and turned into a family center, Cuch said. It will have 12 lanes, conference and party rooms, an arcade and a restaurant serving a healthier menu.

"We want to promote health among our members to enable them to not only acquire wealth and sustain it, but to enjoy it by living out their lives," Cuch said.

Cuch gave credit for many of the projects now under way to his predecessor, interim CEO Valentina Sireech, and others whom he now supervises because the planning phases for the projects were completed prior to his appointment.

"I've been involved in stabilizing what we presently have, upgrading operations and then providing for a smooth transition to the new developments," he said.

Despite the tumultuous end to his government service, Cuch says he doesn't harbor any ill will toward the governor.

"I'm thankful to him that he gave me this nudge to move on in my life and my career," Cuch said. "I'm very happy now. I feel fulfilled. I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be."


Twitter: GeoffLiesik