Skip to main content

How to build a community: The journey begins for the Winnebago Reservation

  • Author:
  • Updated:

WINNEBAGO, Neb. - To tour the present village of Winnebago on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska is to see a community in decline. It's not ramshackle by any means, but there are boarded up homes. To find a business center is nearly impossible, unless the Heritage Center can be construed as one.

The current Winnebago main street consists of the Black Hawk Center, which houses the police department, tribal offices, a wellness center and the U.S. Post Office.

If a new community center on the north edge of the current village were to be built and house the tribal government and BIA, along with retail stores and offices, would the current downtown disappear? Yes, say some people and good riddance.

The buildings are decaying because of age, the swimming pool leaks and may cost more to repair than it would to build a new one. The new center would feature various amenities, and the BIA offices, now located four miles out of town, would be within walking distance.

Tribal members have said a new community with a retail center would bring a once healthy community back to life.

It is called new urbanism and the goal is to create high density in an attractive community.

And what does it take to build such a community?

More than money, it takes a healthy, stable government and a willing community. The initiative to create a new village requires the cooperation of all government entities and a successful split of responsibilities with the understanding of the ultimate goal for each entity.

Lance Morgan, executive director of Ho-Chunk Inc. (HCI) the developer of Winnebago Healthy Village, said the government must be stable and four-year staggered terms by the council and separation of powers are the way to do it. His organization created the Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation (HCCDC) that will act as the lead organization for the community project.

"We realized that government based grants and loan programs are just one component of the funding world. We felt that we needed the non-profit entity to tap into alternative pools of development funding," Morgan said.

The non-profit HCCDC headed by Judi Meyer, executive director, doesn't think inside the box. It looks for funding wherever it might fit the needs of the community. It doesn't wait for American Indian set-asides from foundations, corporations or the government.

Before the new village project became more than a dream, the HCCDC and the Planning Department were formed. This provided three capital sources to acquire funding and oversee the project.

The Planning Department will research government-based grants and loan opportunities. HCCDC is a self-funded, independent non-profit corporation that focuses on the development of the new village project and also works toward providing opportunities for small business entrepreneurs on the reservation. HCI provides the corporate third of this trio of resources. It will provide capital, development expertise and an overall business plan. HCI will also coordinate the work of the two other departments.

These three companies, separate from the tribal council or government, act quasi-independently and provide the expertise and guidance needed to move economic development for the tribe and new village forward.

The most important task for the three groups will be coordinating with the tribal government. Many tribes have the three components present in some form, but they are not focused on accomplishing the same goal.

"We were a corporate entity, that's all we talked about and we had a wakeup call when a tribe removed a leader because they weren't advancing socially as much as they were economically. We thought that would happen to us if we didn't have a social impact," Morgan said.

"But we don't have the money of some of the larger gaming tribes, so if we were going to have a social impact we needed to figure out a way to get additional capital sources. We needed to draw money into the reservation some way."

The decision on how to best use government money or other grants began with the construction of a new building for HCI headquarters. It began with a $490,000 federal grant, was constructed by the Ho-Chunk Construction company; phone systems and computer networks set up by the HCI technology company, and furniture brought in by the design company.

"We found a way to use a government grant to achieve a goal and be able to put in very little capital. We thought, we've got to take this out for a spin and see if we can systemize this approach. Then we can pull in multiple funding sources and we can make an impact on the community and spread out the social benefits.

"We figured out a way in this grant strategy to get people in better houses and improve the community. We then formed the non-profit (HCCDC). We figured the average tribe was pretty much good at getting the state and federal programs and funds that were set aside for them, but not very good at going after foundations and corporate dollars," Morgan said.

He added that many tribes don't have the skills or the language spoken by the foundations and non-profits to seek out large scale or national funding. "We thought we would just go muck around out there, but knew we needed a non-profit to play that game," Morgan said.

That's when HCCDC was formed and that was the final part of the puzzle that would put HCI and the Winnebago tribe fully into the world of corporate, foundation and government grant giving.

"We had the tool bag, but still didn't know what we were doing. So we decided to go after this 40 acre project. We got the land, had it secured and went for a regular old Indian Community Development Block Grant," Morgan said.

The grant was approved based on simple and basic drawings of what the community could look like.

The grant was awarded on a matching basis. HCI would have put $400,000 into the project, but another grant of $390,000 filled that gap and the project initially cost very little, Morgan said.

The entire ICDBG grant was approved for $1.3 million which includes grading and site work, sewers, paving, sanitary sewer, water main installation and land acquisition.

Before the ICDBG grant, which has led to more grants from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and others, pieces of the project started falling into place.

In late 2000, HCI purchased Dynamic Homes in Minnesota, one of the largest builders of manufactured homes in the region and in February 2001 they formed Ho-Chunk Construction. When the 40-acre new village is complete it will cost $20 million and Ho-Chunk Construction will build $19 million of that "? all with local labor," Morgan said.

Conceptually, the 40 acres was to be a new village. But to find available land on the reservation was difficult if not impossible. And in an area where the landscape is attractive and living in the country is pleasant for some, attracting people to the new village would be difficult. Morgan said one of the reasons people wanted to move out was the center of town. It is unattractive and does not offer many services.

So, when Morgan and others became aware of new urbanism with its return to older concepts of village development, it became the rallying cry for the new Winnebago. The basic idea is to create a village where people can walk, shop, play, socialize and work toward economic security.

A variety of home designs are planned with Dynamic agreeing to discount its homes to tribal members by $15,000. And a tribal program for people who attend homeowner classes would equal a $5,000 contribution toward a down payment. A private American Indian donor contributed an additional $30,000 and the Shakopee Mdewakanton community in Minnesota threw in another $300,000. A down payment of $20,000 will be available to homebuyers and with the discount the monthly payment will be $474 per month at a 6.5 percent APR.

There are more grants, more contributions and other creative methods to match grants and raise project money on the horizon. There is enough money available now to put in the infrastructure and begin building the commercial district that encompasses the initial 40 acres. The next 200 acres of development will come over time.

The central part of town will take some four years to complete at an estimated cost of $20 million.