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Economics Special: Blackfeet tackle numerous economic projects

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BROWNING, Mont. - Tribal officials on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation are working on a variety of new projects designed to combat high unemployment, bring in tourist dollars and decrease dependency on the federal government.

One of the largest recent endeavors is the construction of a rodeo arena and horse racing track on the outskirts of Browning, the reservation's capital. According to Mike Tatsey of the tribal planning office, about $650,000 has been spent on the project so far. A major goal is to attract attendees and participants from out of the area and become a sanctioned site for Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events, among other activities.

The new grounds will play host to United Indian Rodeo Association regional finals later this month. The event will draw competitors and fans from across Montana, Idaho, Washington, North Dakota and South Dakota. Relay and flat-track horse racing on the new, half-mile oval were also offered during this summer's annual North American Indian Days celebration.

"It's a state-of-the-art place," Tatsey said of the facility, which is nearing completion. The new bleachers at the site can hold about 1,200 spectators. There's also room for more seating structures as they are needed.

Marilyn Parsons, who also works in the planning office, said funding for the race track and arena came from the Blackfeet Tribe and area residents who want to see equestrian events and opportunities expanded.

"It was all just a community effort," she explained. "It's been a good project."

Parsons said reservation ranchers have pitched in to build barns at the site. Renewed interest is also being shown for 4-H activities and other animal-related events that benefit youth. In time, Parsons said, the tribe even hopes to include horse use as part of treatment plans in local chemical-dependency programs.

On other fronts, the Siyeh Development Inc., a tribally owned and federally chartered organization, is now running five separate businesses on the reservation, said General Manager Dennis Fitzpatrick.

According to Fitzpatrick, two of the most successful ventures are the Discovery Lodge Casino in the border town of Cut Bank and the Glacier Peaks Bingo outlet in Browning. Because the Blackfeet Tribe doesn't have a gaming compact with the state of Montana, the highest level of gambling that can be offered is Class II, Fitzpatrick noted.

Nonetheless, some of the progressive games already online have payouts of up to $200,000 and discussions are under way regarding a new and larger gaming facility on the reservation that could accommodate far more players.

"We're trying to do the best we can with our limited opportunities for gaming," Fitzpatrick explained. "We need to have a better place that has more space and better parking for tourists."

Three years ago, Siyeh started the Starlink Cable television company, which now has about 1,000 subscribers in the Browning and East Glacier areas. Fitzpatrick said the firm is now moving into closed circuit surveillance systems. Siyeh is also looking at the possibility of getting into the wireless telecommunications arena and is already working with a private Montana company to iron out details.

Siyeh, governed by board of directors appointed by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, also oversees the Kimi Mountain Spring Water company, which provides bottled water to residents of the reservation. The service is especially popular in Browning, where municipal supplies have high levels of iron and manganese. The metals turn tap water an unsightly black when mixed with chlorine. While a new and improved municipal supply system is now being built, the demand for bottled water is expected to remain steady over time.

One of Siyeh's fledgling projects is the Blackfeet Heritage Center. Located in facilities formerly owned by the late sculptor Bob Scriver, the tribe plans to develop a place where tourists and locals alike can learn more about Blackfeet history and culture. The center already has a Native art gallery that opened last year, and increased collaboration with Blackfeet Coins & Crafts, a Siyeh subsidiary, is being looked at, Fitzpatrick said.

The business currently markets Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Sacagawea and Blackfeet Nation commemorative coins through its Web site, www.blackfeetcoins.com, and a new line of coins featuring historic tribal leaders may be developed in the future, he added.

Siyeh since 2000 has also been involved in the tribe's Blackfeet I Wind Project, a venture with the San Diego-based SeaWest WindPower Inc. to develop a 22-megawatt wind energy facility on the reservation.

In all, Siyeh's enterprises now employ 63 people and each year the firms contribute about $700,000 in wages alone to the area's economy, Fitzpatrick said. All of the corporation's companies are tribally owned and are now self-sustaining.

"One of the biggest difficulties is that I think there's a tendency to not have enough patience with tribal enterprises," he explained. "It takes awhile."

Meanwhile, the tribe is drawing up final plans for a new, 47-bed nursing home and a 13-bay dialysis center that will be located next to the Indian Health Service hospital in Browning. According to Parsons, ground at the site has already been staked out, and soil testing has been completed. Groundbreaking is tentatively set for Oct. 1, with completion slated for late 2004.

"We're doing it with a bond issue," Parsons said. "We're trying to not rely on grants all the time."

Another tribal enterprise, Pikuni Industries Inc., has lately been focused on completing the first phase of a federal General Services Administration contract to build five new houses for the U.S. Border Patrol at the Port of Piegan crossing into Canada. The $2.5 million contract is expected to be followed with another $1 million influx for phase two, said Pikuni General Manager Warren Blackman.

"As long as we perform on this up to their specifications, we should get more work from the federal government," he said.

Pikuni also got into the modular-home construction business with the help of start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that venture is largely on hold as the company goes through a management restructuring, Blackman explained.

However, the company's metal and wood fabrication shop, which has operated for years, is still in the business of building sheds, cattle guards, gates and other related objects, he added. Other construction projects are pending, as well, but a proposal to build a luxury resort next to Glacier National Park is on hold for the moment, tribal officials said.