Three California tribal nations are deploying three different strategies of economic development that range from financial services, sustainable energy, agritourism, gaming and retail to expand opportunity for their communities. These three tribes represent the innovation of tribal diversification by highlighting gaming and non-gaming projects, on- and off-reservation projects as well as online business. What they all share is a commitment to tribal nation building and self-reliance through economic development.
Developing sustainable self-reliance is a complicated issue that has plagued tribal governments for more than a century. Many tribes have re-built their economies by passing tribal ordinances to legalize gaming on tribal lands– but there are still a large percentage of tribes that don’t have access to that option due to their geographic isolation from land-based gaming markets. Much their success depends on geography, size of the tribe, access to capital and business leadership. Even if gaming is a viable operation, expanding supporting businesses is a necessary strategy to keep the economy growing.
We spoke to three tribal economic development leaders in California who are helping their tribes build, expand and establish not just new revenue streams but areas of expertise that will benefit their tribal members, communities and the planet.
- Sherry Treppa is the chairperson of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, a federally recognized Indian Nation in Upper Lake, California, north of Napa. She has served as an elected official since 2004 and has been chairperson since 2008. Treppa leads the effort to gain economic self-reliance through e-commerce, financial services, gaming and other economic opportunities, while preserving the Pomo culture.
- Michael Contreras is a San Pasqual Tribal member and President and CEO of the San Pasqual Economic Development Corporation. In this capacity, he is leading the Corporate Board’s efforts to expand the tribe’s work in philanthropy, government contracting and economic diversification to extend the Tribe’s success with the Valley View Casino in Northern San Diego County. Prior to his position with the casino, he worked for 28 years at Hewlett- Packard.
- Essence Oyos is a member of the Mesa Grande Tribe and a holistic health and wellness expert with more than 25 years of experience as a myofascial release therapist. She currently represents the Mesa Grande Business Development Corporation on the regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) Steering Committee, a local designation of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), designed to bring together central, south and east San Diego County public and private sectors, nonprofits, and individuals in the creation of an economic road map to diversify and strengthen regional economies.
Each of these leaders has a different personal history and has faced adverse circumstances. All are now integral to their respective tribes’ innovation and they are all committed to bringing greater financial benefit and enterprise potential to their areas.
“I’ll give a little bit of background about our tribe,” Chairwoman Treppa says. “Like with many of us, there were dark times in our history. The Bloody Island Massacre saw the mass murder of our tribal members, including women and children, during Cavalry action in the 1850s. When federal policy started forcibly moving tribes to reservations, our reservation historically grew to be over 560 acres. We were congressionally terminated in the 1950s, pursuant to the California Rancheria Act that severed the relationship with the federal government and it impacted us considerably. The process required that the land in trust came out of trust for those who were recognized as tribal members at that time and then it was subject to taxation. Many of our members lost their land to pay back taxes or sold it for pennies on the dollar.
“We sued for wrongful termination but that wasn’t until the 1970s. We won our lawsuit in 1983 but it resulted in us having to go through the rebuilding of our government and recodifying a constitution, which took until 2004. So, we were very late in restructuring our government. Once our constitution passed, the only thing that attracted the necessary capital to acquire land and to put it in trust was gaming.”
The newly formed tribal government had an outside investor and advisor who helped them navigate the challenges of putting land into trust and building a casino. Unfortunately, it was 2008 when they were finally on their way and the economy crashed. They were finally able to open the doors of a modest casino in 2012.
“The impacts of the economy, trying to open a casino in a saturated market and our limited land base made it so we were never able to pay our debt service,” Treppa says. “Fortunately, our investor worked with us and we were able to renegotiate our debt and write off a little over $12 million as we struggled to make ends meet. Finally, we looked to the internet, which was an opportunity that did not matter where you’re located or whether you have a big land base. We built an online financial services business and it has been a game changer for our tribe. It has been able to fund other business opportunities we’re currently working on, including a ‘neo-bank,’ that provides the products and services of a bank, such as debit cards, prepaid cards and credit cards, without the depository aspect.”
The financial services platforms of the Upper Lake Tribe can be found here. Other initiatives Upper Lake has in progress is expansion of broadband with assistance from state and federal funding.
“We’ve been collaborating with the county in an economic recovery corporation grant, which is the first in the area,” Treppa says. “We’ll partner to help provide internet and broadband access to most of the North Shore area of the county, in addition to our tribal community. Additionally, we’ve received funding in the areas of greenhouse-gas reduction and biofuel technology. We are partnering with a company that has a technology to take ‘forest slash’ –the branches and debris that fall to the forest floor from storms and logging – and convert it into a biofuel for heating and transportation.”
The tribe will be investing in two biofuel plants that are out of state and eventually building a smaller facility in Lake County.
The San Pasqual Tribe has had better fortune with establishing its casino and is now expanding with other retail offerings. EDC President and CEO Contreras has been involved off and on over the past 24 years but has now taken the helm for the San Pasqual Economic Development Corporation.
In 1999, Contreras was part of the team that was instrumental in establishing financing, design, construction, hiring of staff and vendors and building a wastewater treatment facility for the Valley View Casino.
“I’m a tribal member but I didn’t grow up on the reservation,” he says. “I went to work for Hewlett Packard in 1972 and was with them for about 28 years. In 1999, the Tribal chairman approached me because he knew I did project management at HP. We were still in the planning stages when we connected with a partner that would help us start the casino. We started with about 200 machines that had to be put in play within a year. It was difficult getting funding at the time because the tribe hadn’t yet established a solid business background. We were a poor tribe with about 240 members. Once we got going, we got funding and built a 40,000-square-foot casino.”
Contreras and his fellow Board members created procurement processes, policies, and procedures, built a tribal hall, purchased 535 acres of land that they converted to “land into trust,” with the purchase of Native Oaks Golf Club, Indian Hill Ranch, and several rental properties and an additional 400 acres of land. These land acquisitions have more than doubled the size of the tribe’s reservation.
“As we continued, we got bigger and bigger; business got better and the tribe was making more money,” he says. “When we started, most tribal members were really suffering. It was a tough time but things got better as we expanded the casino. Now we have about 800 rooms in the hotel, 2,600 games in play and the casino is over90,000 square feet. Sadly, the tribe lost a lot of members during the pandemic and membership is down to about 148 members now – we are an older tribe with a lot of elders but that also means we have a lot of institutional knowledge and cultural wisdom In April we’re celebrating 21 years in business.”
The San Pasqual tribe has developed a strategy of entering new industries, hiring management companies or management talent, learning the industry and then replacing the outside talent with tribal members in the leadership positions. They have successfully done this with gaming and hospitality as well as construction, retail management and regulation.
Here are some of the Tribe’s newly opened projects with one in the works:
- The Pit Stop Market is a drive-thru convenience store that offers high-quality products and made-to-order food as well as a large selection of gourmet coffee, snacks and sundries.
- Horizon Fuel Center offers premium fuel at great prices with a clean fueling area. It features high-tech fuel pumps with entertainment screens, EV pumps and charging stations, propane, diesel, racing and regular fuel.
- Zippy’s Coffee Shop started construction in October 2023. It will be a drive-through, $5 million project.
Like San Pasqual, The Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians is also Kumeyaay and based in what is now San Diego County, near Ramona. The opportunity came up in 2017 for Essence Oyos to become a volunteer member on the board for the newly chartered Business Development Corporation for Mesa Grande and she’s still helping chart the course six years later. What started out as a promise to her great-aunt has become one of her life’s great passions.
“I was blessed to find my grandfather’s last living siblings and that’s how I was introduced to being a member of the tribe,” Oyos says. “My enrollment wasn’t approved until about 2004, even though we first applied around 1998. For about 14 years I helped care for my great aunt, who was very disabled and had a lot of medical conditions. I took her to some of the tribal meetings and she’d often come out frustrated. ‘It’s just like my mother used to say, nothing will ever change!’
“That didn’t fit well with me because I’m a deep believer that there’s always room for change so long as there’s a safe space and a foundation of trust. Before she passed, I made her a promise that I would do whatever I could to build trust and create a safe space for a solid sustainable economy to develop for the tribe.”
In 2017 the Mesa Grande Business Development Corporation was formed and the tribe had the opportunity to purchase 560 acres of pristine land in the valley between Ramona and Santa Isabel. It’s adjacent what’s known as the 900-acre reservation land.
“The tribe decided that a 560-acre property would be our most viable land for economic development and issued limited authority of the property to the Business Development Corporation. There was frequent turnover of tribal government so the BDC was the best entity to take on the project of redesignating the land from fee status back to trust status.”
The Tribe’s goal is to focus on agritourism and for the property to be sustainable and for the tribe to be good stewards of the land while also developing an economy. The parcel is a former racehorse-breeding and training facility that has long been a source of pride for San Diego County.
“We want to create a family-friendly, community-friendly resource for education, cultural connection,” Oyos says. “The result is Golden Eagle Farm and Golden Eagle Gardens, which provide the experience of being on a working farm and the community can come pick vegetables or other organically grown food items.”
In 2019, the tribe received a scholarship from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe in Minnesota for two tribal members to attend the Seeds of Native Health conference and Oyos says that experience literally and metaphorically ‘planted the seed’ for them to get to where they are today.
“We have 5 acres in production for the farm so far and we’re bumping that up to 10,” she says. “We hope to have that fully planted this year because we’re completely funded through a Department of Food and Agriculture grant that funds beginning farmworkers and a farmworker training program. Our crew is truly amazing from the supervisor to the worker trainees. It’s a fabulous team that loves what they do.”
The Mesa Grande tribe is also generating revenues with vacation rentals. The first – the former owners’ ranch home – has four bedrooms and two bathrooms and it sleeps up to 14 and can be rented via VRBO. The second rental property is coming soon but some drainage issues need to be solved first.
With pressure to fund tribal education, health and housing, among other tribal priorities, tribal economic development specialists experience a combination of urgency and excitement. Whether it’s exploring unfamiliar frontiers like tribal e-commerce, biofuels and agritourism or extending reliable industries like government gaming and retail, tribes are finding new ways to thrive and control their own economic destinies.
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