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Chamber sees time of opportunities

MINNEAPOLIS - American Indian-owned businesses in the Minneapolis-St. Paul
area as well as all other areas of the state have an advocate in the
Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber describes itself as always being on the lookout for
opportunities to employ Indian workers and to tap Indian businesses into
the network of federal, state and local procurement opportunities.

That economic development effort is paying off, as three of the top 25
minority-owned businesses in Minnesota currently are Native-owned,
according to Karri Plowman, executive director of the chamber. One of those
businesses, Deco Security, based on the Mille Lacs reservation, is one of
the top 10 American Indian-owned businesses in the United States. The firm
employs 2,000 people in security work and is a big contractor for the
federal government.

Another Indian-owned firm, Shingobee Builders, based in the Minneapolis
suburb of Loretto, is one of the top five woman-owned construction
companies in the state. Another prominent Twin Cities Native-owned firm is
Native Northland Products, which sells wild rice and art objects.

Founded by Indian contractors in 1986, the chamber has 190 members and
employs four people. About 60 percent of its members are located in the
Twin Cities metro area, said Plowman, with the rest mostly on the state's
11 Indian reservations.

"It's a time of growth for our Indian businesses," he said. "People are
seeing opportunity."

According to the most recent statistics, there are 34,000 Indians living in
the metro area, with 14,000 in Minneapolis and about 9,000 in St. Paul. But
with the success of some rez-based ventures there is new opportunity on the
reservations and a lot of people are moving home.

He cited homebuilding ventures by the Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs tribes as
examples of tribal ventures building jobs on their respective homelands.

And, with tribal casino success and other economic development, there is
now a "reverse process" going on whereby reservation-based economic
development is causing new business creation in surrounding areas.

Some big businesses in the state are also Indian-friendly. The 3M Corp.
employs 75 American Indians, he said, while General Mills has had an Indian
advisory group for a long time.

Taken together, Minnesota's 11 tribal nations would make up the
10th-largest employer in Minnesota, Plowman said.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has said there are 2,000 Indian-owned
businesses in the state, but the chamber and the University of Minnesota
conducted a survey that identified about 580. The businesses run the gamut
from arts and crafts to service-oriented firms like printing firms or
medical suppliers.

Plowman mentioned as a procurement success the $4 million water and sewer
contract for Minneapolis' Hiawatha Light Rail, which was obtained by an
American Indian woman-owned firm and achieved a 14.3 percent minority
employee ratio.

The director admitted that Minnesota's Indians, while active in
service-oriented businesses, have not been very prominent in retail
startups. He hopes to see "a ground building of individual entrepreneurs,"
especially through training such as the program that exists at Sinte Gleska
College.

The chamber, one of 15 American Indian chambers around the country, is also
involved in the tourism business and has inherited a tribal tourism
festival it will run in St. Paul Sept. 9 - 11. It took over the state
office of the Indian Tourism Association two years ago.

It will help tourism entrepreneurs with all their business needs - human
resources, legal, technical, marketing, and business plans.

Financing for Minnesota Native business people has gotten a little looser
in recent years, Plowman said, especially with the programs of the Small
Business Administration. With individual banks, the story is still "catch
as catch can," with some providing credit and others not.

Other Indian chambers, such as the one in neighboring Wisconsin, have tried
their luck with their own financing entities, such as community development
financial institutions. But the Minnesota chamber has chosen to act as a
funnel for the organizations that already fund, he said.

Plowman, a California Paiute, has been executive director of the chamber
for about a year and has worked there about three years in total.