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Duluth architects build with Indian clients

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) – Duluth architectural firm is betting on the future of its business with American Indian tribes.

Already, tribal customers account for about one-third of DSGW Architects’ business, according to Randy Wagner, an architect and partner in the firm. But he sees potential for more work catering to American Indian clients.

Toward that end, DSGW launched the First American Design Studio this year, creating a special division within the company focused on meeting the needs of American Indian clients.

Wagner said DSGW have been taking on American Indian projects for more than 20 years. He now credits that business for softening the blow of the recent economic downturn.

“With the economy like it is, our work has certainly slowed down, but we’ve maintained much of our tribal activity, and that’s certainly helped us weather these tough economic times,” he said.

The firm hired Mike Laverdure, a 37-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, last year to help it develop even stronger ties with American Indian clients. Laverdure has worked in the industry for a decade and is in the final stages of being certified as an architect. Laverdure believes he will become the first member of his tribe ever to achieve that distinction.

Laverdure said there are probably fewer than 50 American Indian architects now practicing their craft, and more seem to be nearing retirement age than are entering the profession.

“We were very fortunate to bring Mike on board,” Wagner said. “He is going to be our firm’s first Native American architect, and he’s very talented.”

Laverdure liked what he saw in DSGW, too: an established firm with more than 60 tribal projects under its belt. He said the firm has demonstrated a commitment to working with American Indians and forming relationships that last.

That’s been a good business model.

“With gaming enhancing the financial resources of many tribes, they’ve been building community centers, clinics, schools and other facilities,” Wagner said.

“Our firm has been quite engaged for more than 20 years, working with Native American tribes and individuals, and we’ve developed a lot of understanding and friendships,” said John Scott, another member of the firm.

David Anderson, a band member and construction manager for the Bois Forte band of Chippewa in Nett Lake, has partnered with DSGW on several projects, including a $6 million casino expansion a few years ago and a $12 million hotel and resort development two years ago.

“They have a great staff and they’re really easy to work with,” he said.

Anderson described the firm as low-key and attentive to the needs of his tribe. “They’re really attuned to what this area is about.”

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Sonny Peacock, a director for the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, said DSGW has designed a number of buildings on the reservation and has shown its ability to listen and respond to the vision of tribal members.

“What we wanted to do was to let people know this was a tribal college when they walked in the door. You can see that in our building’s design, the color scheme, the four directions, the circle theme and the artwork we’ve chosen,” he said. “It all celebrates the tribal community.”

Positive word of mouth has helped DSGW grow its business with American Indians, and Laverdure said that listening respectfully is a key to achieving a successful design.

“It’s the people who will be using buildings who should drive what buildings become. That’s because architecture is about people,” he said.

Traditionally, most of DSGW’s business with American Indian tribes has been limited to Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Wagner said the firm now is making inroads into new territories.

DSGW recently landed a job with a tribe in New Mexico, and Laverdure has been prospecting far and wide. He estimates that he has logged about 20,000 miles of travel in the past two months.

Wagner said Laverdure is helping the firm forge new relationships.

“Because of his background and talent, Mike brings an inherent credibility and stature to our firm, especially with new clients. We already have the trust of existing clients, but new doors seem to be a little more open to us with Mike,” he said.

Much of DSGW’s work continues to bubble up in its backyard, however. The firm recently partnered with Anmahian Winton Architects of Massachusetts to design a proposed Indian Learning Resource Center for the University of Minnesota Duluth. However, the fate of that $9.5 million project hinges on the school obtaining state bonding money.





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