Like many Indian tribes, the Mille Lacs Ojibwe got an enormous boost from
gaming in the 1990s. Its two casinos brought in millions of dollars annually, and hundreds of new jobs. Now the Band is trying to broaden its economy. A tribal entrepreneur program has brought in restaurants and gas stations. The band invested in a bottled-water company, and has purchased two banks in three years. The Mille Lacs Ojibwe are
looking ahead at a future without gaming.
THE LAST DECADE OF THIS century was the first of prosperity for the Mille Lacs Ojibwe. To most Minnesotans, the tribe had always been that poor community crouched along the shore of the state's best-known walleye fishery; a collection of rickety homes and a couple of missionary chapels. Then in the early '90s, the Band opened two casinos. The stream of money has kept them building ever since.
Now the Mille Lacs Band - which numbers about 3,000 members - boasts new schools and streets, a big hotel, water and sewer hookups, newly built government offices. This kind of development was unimaginable at Mille Lacs a generation ago; and the band's corporate commissioner, Ken Mimmack, says straight out: it won't last forever.
Mimmack: Every business has a cycle. Business is good, then it plateaus. Sometimes businesses change. When you're creating an economy, in order for it to be stable, you have to look at all those areas so that you're able to withstand a decline, maybe, in a certain industry or business.Creating an economy might seem like grandiose language, but that's Mimmack's job description. Since the rise of Indian casinos, the Minnesota Legislature has conducted an annual debate over whether and how to cut in on the gaming action; the band's corporate commission is supposed to make sure the reservation doesn't collapse if its share of the gaming market suddenly drops. That means widening the employment base beyond the 2,000 jobs at the two casinos. It means courting new industries. It means encouraging what until now has been the rarest of enterprises: the Indian-owned small business.
Mimmack: We have 26 entreprenuers that are operating businesses right now, which is exciting. When you look at a group of people that aren't necessarily real outgoing, or risk takers, these people are explorers in their field. They've decided to take that bold step. Put together a business plan, go into debt, start to learn from a hands-on standpoint how to run a business.Michael Kalk, preparing a latte for a customer from the casino, calls his coffee shop "his baby". It hasn't been easy, but his baby's a year old now. Kalk's one of many Mille Lacs members who've returned after years working elsewhere - in his case, 13 years in the Twin Cities.
Kalk: I don't believe in getting anything for free. I believe we should have to work for everything we aquire in life. Because we can get out and work just like anybody else; I'm not going to take a free handout.Kalk alludes to the way some tribes, like the Mdwakanton Sioux in Shakopee, handle their casino profits: doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual band members, creating a wealthy - and often unemployed - class. The practice is the subject of some muttering at Mille Lacs, in tones of disgust or envy, but most members seem to agree with Kalk. Ron Johnson is head of surveillance at the band's casino in Hinckley.
Johnson: Sure, the per-capita payments would've been nice. But when they were gone, then what? We want everyone to be able to excel, to do things they couldn't always do before, to hold down good jobs, support themselves and their families.Construction's nearly done on the new Woodlands National Bank, in the nearby community of Onamia. Rare evidence of prosperity on this clapboard-dominated Main Street, the new building replaces the old bank next door, which the Ojibwe bought in 1996. It was the band's first aquisition of a business off the reservation - a bank on the downslope, full of bad loans and obsolete computers. Yet Woodland president Lew Anderson says the band's biggest problem was P.R.
Anderson: The initial reaction was that a number of people left. And a lot of reasons were given.In 1996, the Mille Lacs Band was still fighting its treaty-fishing rights case against the state. The tribe's move into banking heightened some residents' fears that the Indians were "taking over." With the case now resolved, those fears have subsided; but the Band still has what it says is the only bank-holding company in the nation owned by Native Americans. Anderson says people are still getting used to that.
Anderson: It's interesting that often if we turn down a white person on a loan, their response is: "I knew that would happen when the Indians owned the bank." But we turn down an Indian customer for a loan, and their comment is something like: "What's the sense of owning a bank if we can't borrow there?" So we get it from both sides.Yet the bank's made a stunning turnaround under the band. It implemented a new, stricter lending policy, a new risk-rating plan. It put ATMs into both casinos - a no-brainer, Anderson says. Perhaps most importantly, the bank has pursued the growing number of Mille Lacs members who are working and saving. In the last 18 months alone, 200 band members have started new accounts. Corporate Commissioner Ken Mimmack says what was largely an unemployed, non-banking society will step into the next century prepared, and productive.
Mimmack: We're in the process of putting together what I'll call our sales package. To embark on the 3Ms of the world - the Honeywells - who we know are aggressive outsourcers of business. The unique thing about the band is, they have the capability to provide assurances for business partners that other Indian tribes can't. The Band is going to start knocking on some doors.
Last month, the Ojibwe announced the purchase of a second bank, this one in Hinckley. Mimmack calls financial services integral to what lies ahead: the piece-by-piece construction of the Band's future, post-gaming economy.