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Ho-Chunk Healthy Village: Locally grown community living

WINNEBAGO, Neb. - Two months ago corn would have been planted in the 40-acres designated for a new village. Today, the earth movers have graded the acreage and within a year businesses and houses will dot the landscape.

The new Ho-Chunk Healthy Village is officially under way after a ceremony that brought together state and tribal officials. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns wielded a shovel along with tribal Chairman John Black Hawk and state Senator Matt Connealy to ceremonially break the ground for the more than $20 million project.

The village, when finished in five to 10 years, will be a model village for rural Nebraska and for Indian country, Johanns said.

"It's exciting for me to be here today. The most exciting thing for me is probably not so much the people but our generation. It is the positive impact that you are having for your children and your children's children and on and on," Johanns said.

"That is what it is about. They will grow up seeing what you have done here and the accomplishments you are making and I think that is going to lay a tremendous foundation for their future."

The healthy village, the first of its kind in Indian country was nothing more than an idea more than a year and a half ago. With fund-raising efforts, a federal Community Development Block Development Grant and the involvement of other grant proposals the village, designed to create a culturally aware and healthy living village for the Winnebago people, is becoming a reality.

The driving force for the new village comes from Ho-Chunk Inc., the business arm of the Winnebago Tribe. Ho-Chunk Inc. Executive Director, Lance Morgan, added a new dimension to the company with the non-profit Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation (HCCDC) that assists the tribe and the company with fund raising, and a planning department.

The new village, built on private land, purchased by the HCCDC and Ho-Chunk Inc. will not be subject to trust status, but will be added to the existing Winnebago village, which has a separate board of trustees. The new village will work on many areas of concern for the community from health issues to economics.

"This is our attempt to tackle as many problems as we can at once. Winnebago doesn't have the housing we need, there is no place for businesses to go, there is no place for entrepreneurs, there is no place for government buildings.

"Our town has developed over the years randomly by what we could get from government grants. We thought that if we could design something right we would have a town that we would be proud of and we would have a place that we could call our own," Morgan said.

A few months ago, a collaboration of architects, community planners and tribal members gathered in Winnebago to exchange ideas that led to a design for the new village. Tribal members insisted the new village be culturally sensitive and reflect the history of the people while fostering a healthy, economically stable and social environment.

Following a week of design ideas and weeks of finalization a plan was reached. The Ho-Chunk Construction Company was involved with site preparation before bids were issued for the infrastructure. Within the year, six buildings for business and government will be constructed and six homes will be completed on the 40 acres.

There is no cost to the tribe. Funding comes from federal and private foundation grants, leveraged income from rent on the buildings and other sources.

Ho-Chunk Inc. owns the construction company that will build the houses, and the housing company in Minnesota that will create most of the houses that will go on the site. Ho-Chunk Inc. started the non-profit that brought in the grants; it also raised money from other tribes to put towards a down payment assistance program so home buyers receive at least $20,000 for use as a down payment. The homes are also being discounted by the construction company.

The contribution for the down payment from the tribe is one-third of its gas tax. Another third of the gas taxes will go towards road construction and repair and the final third will be used for economic development.

"It is good planning on the tribe's part and I think this will become a model for how other tribes develop in the future and it is certainly going to be a place that we can call our own and be quite proud of," Morgan said.

A key to the project's success may be most visible for the past year, but the real work started many years ago with the development of quality and sustainable leadership, Black Hawk said. It was not just the commitment of people who served in elected positions, but those who continued to serve the tribe in other capacities and from the many prayers that were said by many of the Winnebago spiritual leaders, he said.

Leadership and support from state and local governments also plays a major role in what a tribe can accomplish. Gov. Johanns said he was ready to return to Winnebago for the ribbon cutting ceremony.

He also attended the first groundbreaking of the fledgling Ho-Chunk Inc. as it ventured into the hotel business in Omaha. Johanns was not the governor at the time.

Black Hawk reminded the crowd that many years ago the first meeting with a governor lasted 15 minutes. The governor said hello, shook some hands and handed out match books. As time passed the meetings have been more productive and today the Winnebago tribe has the attention of Gov. Johanns.

Cooperation makes jurisdictional issues easier to overcome. Black Hawk mentioned a project on the reservation that required seven different jurisdictions that made the project unwieldy and as time passed the housing project took on a different dimension.

The Ho-Chunk Healthy Village is completely controlled by the tribe and Ho-chunk Inc.

"We are doing it all, we are in total control of every aspect of it from the housing, the commercial, the government side. That is something that is not typical in the past. We always waited for somebody to save us.

"What this shows is the new mentality, and it's reflective of the new pride and the new confidence that we have both as a tribe and as individual people. For us to go out and take care of it ourselves and to push forward it very important and it says a lot about our future and the direction we are going," Morgan said.

Gov. Johnanns said the way the Winnebago Tribe handled the new village project should serve as a model for other rural communities in the state. He asked tribal leaders for their input for new ways to inspire economic development. The old ways, he said, have been criticized, "we need to work on new ideas," he said.

Sen. Connealy, said that incorporating the local, private funding and leveraging with the government was a unique way to fund such a project as the new healthy village.

"The Winnebago Tribe and Ho-Chunk development and Ho-Chunk Inc. are leading the way in new strategies for economic development. I want to congratulate you on all you have accomplished. We are very proud of you." Connealy said.