Oklahoma tribes work to promote development
By SARAH TERRY-COBO
Feb. 12, 2018
ANADARKO, Okla. (AP) — Terri Parton is working to improve economic development for the group of tribes she represents, as well as for local communities.
The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes president forged relationships with local municipal leaders and university experts in western Oklahoma, The Journal Record reported. The stronger connections are helping tribal and non-tribal entities grow.
She said the biggest challenge is that her group can't get development fast enough. That's partly because much of the Wichitas' land is held jointly with the Caddo Nation and the Delaware Tribe. The tribes have to agree on what to do with it before it can be developed.
The Wichitas, Caddo and Delaware have agreed upon set-asides of 600-acre tracts that could be separated from joint ownership. That way each tribe could develop its own trust land individually and wouldn't need a consensus from all three to move forward on projects. Parton said she and other affiliated tribal leaders are waiting for U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' regional administrators to sign off on the land division.
In the meantime, she's got a project near Hinton and several projects in Anadarko, home of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes headquarters.
The Wichitas bought the Hinton Travel Inn in 2014. The economy hotel is near Interstate 40 and was popular among construction workers and oil-field drilling and service crews. The building is several decades' old and faced significant wear and tear, before the Wichitas' purchase. The sovereign nation didn't have much experience in hospitality, so Parton turned to Doug Misak, the Center for Economic and Business Development for Southwestern Oklahoma State University. His staff studied the building and the hotel's operations and provided guidance and industry-best practices to attract more tourists and families.
The Wichitas created a unified theme for all the rooms with fire-retardant bedding, and added Braille signs to the rooms and along hallways around the building. They added security cameras to the hotel lobby. They also instituted accounting and bookkeeping procedures to monitor expenses and cash flow.
Misak's staff examined the small indoor pool and produced a cost-benefit analysis, so the Wichitas could determine if it was worth the money to repair and upgrade it. Pools are required to have wheelchair lifts, to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. That's partially why many older hotels don't have working pools. Misak's staff estimated in 2013 it could cost an average of $142,000 to renovate an indoor pool.
The lobby and entrance were remodeled and archival tribal photos were added. The reopening of the hotel was in October.
Parton's staff is also working with Misak's employees to examine the Wichitas' Sugar Creek Casino for possible expansion plans. The building was initially a car dealership, so it has some design limitations, like low ceilings.
Marc Martinez, a junior computer science student at SWOSU, is creating maps for the property, which includes trust land where the casino is, as well as defining the non-trust tribal boundaries. He used global positioning system equipment to determine where all the water, sewer and electric lines are around the area. The mapping project also will establish the utilities' capacity and the potential need for upgrades if the Wichitas expand the complex.
Martinez found an old, privately owned natural gas line running through the property. That must be moved if the Wichitas make major changes.
If the Wichitas' leaders decide to expand the casino, Martinez said they could more easily accommodate growth by moving into what is now a conference center attached to the building. That would allow them to move or expand gambling into the newer building, which has higher ceilings and can be ventilated easier to reduce smoke, he said. The Wichitas could build a new conference center adjacent to the existing building, putting non-gambling activities on land that they own, but is not part of the trust. Gambling activities are allowed only on tribal trust land.
Parton also worked with Anadarko City Manager Kenneth Corn. She said she hadn't worked with prior municipal leadership before she became president in 2012, but she said she is pleased with the relationship and that Corn reached out. He said he had to rebuild trust with the tribes, because prior city administrators didn't have a rapport. About half of the city's population is Native American.
Anadarko moved to highlight and celebrate native culture and tribal citizens' contributions. They added new park benches and remodeled the visitor's center at the Native American Hall of Fame. In 2016, Anadarko was the first city to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. They built a flag plaza featuring tribal nations' flags.
"The flag plaza is a gesture and we wanted to highlight every tribal nation," Corn said. "One leader said this was the first time in which the city built a park and didn't ask the tribes for a dime, but still highlighted their culture."
Though half of the residents are Native American, there were no tribal citizens on the City Council until a few years ago. When there was a vacancy when Corn arrived, the council nominated a Wichita citizen. They have invited tribal members to weigh in on the city's utility code when they re-wrote the ordinance. The city adopted all of the tribal recommendations.
"The good-old-boy deals don't happen," Corn said. "People have seen that Native Americans are treated the same as anyone else, and that was received positively."
Tribes can apply for U.S. Indian Health Service grants to improve water and sewer lines in town, which benefits everyone, Corn said. Anadarko matched the IHS money with community development block grants to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant and upgrade sewage pumps. Before the improvements, sewage would back up into people's homes when the system was overloaded.
Parton said it is important to have a good working relationship with Anadarko's municipal leaders because there are often many families within the community that have mixed racial and ethnic heritage. So if the Wichitas' housing authority can expand water and sewer lines within city limits, it can build more homes to benefit the city as a whole.
She is also working on turning a vacant building, a former Mazzio's, into an after-school program. Construction crews are remodeling the interior as part of the Wichita School Readiness initiative.
"You don't have to be Native American to attend, you can give this benefit to the whole community," Parton said.
Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com