Dustin Seyler has big plans for the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
Seyler, the small-business program manager for a local nonprofit, envisions a downtown Warm Springs filled with hip coffee shops, colorful retail outlets and independent food truck pods.
If just a tenth of drivers can be convinced to pull off U.S. Highway 26 to stop for food or souvenirs, proceeds from sales could be the catalyst needed to get the local economy growing, he said.
“Until the 1800s, we lived off the Nch’i-Wana (Columbia River). It was our lifeline. We fished for salmon and hunted elk there. Well, this highway (Highway 26) is our new Nch’i-Wana,” said Seyler, whose work responsibilities at the Warm Springs Community Action Team also include financial counseling.
The recent closure of a tribe-owned resort, and the earlier loss of a timber mill, left many community members out of work and wondering if private business is the answer to the tribe’s economic woes. But while the reservation has a history of operating it’s own medium-sized enterprises, Warm Springs, one of the poorest communities in Oregon, has so far failed to support the development of small, privately run businesses and entrepreneurial ventures.
Seyler believes it’s time to unleash Warm Springs’ entrepreneurial spirit and take advantage of the 9,000 or so cars that whiz past year day.
The best sign of entrepreneurship downtown is Kalama’s, a family selling Indian fry bread, chili and tacos out of a green and white camper. A small market and cafe around the corner receive mostly local customers. In 2016, the reservation reported having just 14 retail businesses.
“We are trying to get more tribal members involved and owning their own businesses, but a hindrance here is the actual lack of brick and mortar locations,” said Seyler, 34, a former aviation ordnanceman for the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Eastern Oregon University.
To remedy the lack of commercial buildings, the community action team — which is funded by federal, state and private entities — is developing a small-business incubator that could host 10 to 12 small companies, plus co-working and commercial space, and studios for local artists. The project is planned to take up residence in an abandoned 100-year-old building known as the Old Commissary, where community members once queued for free flour, lard and meat.
But there are obstacles in launching a business in this hardscrabble community of 3,000 people, including financing challenges and the lack of a skilled labor force. The community action team runs a business training course called Indianpreneurship to address the lack of business-know how.
Financing is the thornier issue. Warm Springs territory is collectively owned, and the land cannot be used as collateral, which limits opportunities to draw loans from traditional banks. Establishing credit or borrowing money can be difficult when residents cannot get clear title to the land where their home or potential business sits. And if one does not own the land, making a personal investment is risky, too.
Randy Nathan, owner of the Eagle Crossing restaurant, one of the few visible private businesses, said tribal ownership of the building is hindering progress.
“I rent the building from the government, and they could take it away at any time. So I don’t invest in this place at all,” he said, adding that if he were permitted to own the building he would find a way to make the necessary improvements and renovations.
A nearby building has lacked a tenant for a year, he said, because the tribe won’t fix a leaky roof and poorly insulated walls.
Seyler, a tribal member, pins the problem on impractical business rules that have remained unchanged for 70 years.
“Things have changed so much in the outside, but our rules haven’t changed in terms of regulations, rules and politics,” Seyler said. “The thinking has not changed either. We need to think about what is going to get people to pull off the highway.”
Warm Springs, home to members of the Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute tribes, could use positive change. Many there rely solely on per capita tribal payments, which are just $25 a month. The poverty rate hovers at 43.5% according to the datausa website.
Small-business ownership is even more important following the high-profile collapse of two large tribal run ventures.
The Warm Springs Forest Products Industries mill, a major employer since it was acquired in the 1960s, went belly up in 2016. The market for lumber changed with more competition from Canada, Russia and other countries, and upgrading and maintaining the mill became too expensive.
The community suffered another blow last year with the closure of Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa, also blamed on high maintenance costs.
About 250 jobs were lost between the two closures. The Indian Head Gaming Casino, located along Highway 26, is the reservation’s main employer, with about 200 workers.
Alyssa Macy, chief operations officer for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, says without infrastructure improvements, businesses are unlikely to last long. The Arizona State University graduate is helping the tribe apply for grants that could bring in millions to revamp the water distribution system, which this summer failed to provide clean drinking water for 81 straight days.
“It is shocking to me that something like this can happen in 2019,” said Macy, referring to the 10 weeks that the community was ordered to boil water before drinking it. “Here in the United States, there is no excuse. We need to dream, but without water, you cannot do anything. It’s not possible.”
Nathan, the restaurant owner, believes problems in Warm Springs are systemic and cannot be fixed by simply throwing money at improving the infrastructure. He accuses the tribal government of favoring tribe-owed businesses over entrepreneurs and private industry, which he says has halted development and job growth.
“The business environment here is singular. It consists of the tribal government trying to create jobs for itself. The government is not inclined to help entrepreneurs,” said Nathan, whose restaurant is well known for its huckleberry pie, elk burgers and Indian fry bread.
Seyler agrees that young, entrepreneurial types are frustrated with the economy and eager for change.
“We want to be more like Redmond and Bend economically. We want to raise our kids in a healthy environment, free of lead and asbestos and who knows what else,” Seyler said. “There is only so long you can live like this, and you have to question what are we really doing? Does this make sense?”
Remaining upbeat, Seyler ticks off a number of opportunities that the community is looking to develop, including renewable energy projects to harness solar and wind power, and farms that can produce hops and grapes.
Warm Springs Ventures, owned and operated by the tribe, had planned to grow marijuana for the burgeoning pot market, but has recently changed direction and is pursuing hemp cultivation.
“Skills need to be developed, but if we can start now and lay the foundations, holy smokes, the sky’s the limit. It’s just a matter of getting everyone to the table and moving forward as a collective,” said Seyler on the potential for hemp cultivation.
The community can better utilize its 644,000 acres of land for tourism and concerts, said Seyler.
That could start as early as next week with an open-air concert by classical pianist Hunter Noack, scheduled for Thursday.
Breaking down barriers will also be a key to the community’s success, said Seyler.
“Lots of people are fascinated by Native American culture, and they would like to learn more. But I think there is still a fear of the unknown. They don’t know if they can actually stop here,” said Seyler. “We are trying to get out there and say, don’t forget about us, we are still here, and we are doing better.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org