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Mohawk tribe purchases IGA supermarket

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - Members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe at Akwesasne can call themselves the new owners of a full-scale, 53,000-square-foot grocery store. The tribal council signed off on the purchase of the three-year-old store this April, along with 609 acres surrounding the store, for $13.5 million.

The First Americans IGA serves the Mohawks of Akwesasne on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, as well as residents of New York's North Country region. The remote area around the reservation is generally farmland, and residents there previously had to drive at least 20 minutes before reaching a grocery store.

A Mohawk family built the store privately, just across the road from the tribe's main business: the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. When tribal officials approached the grocery store owners about leasing a portion of the land to run power lines to the casino, the owners offered to sell the store and land instead.

In considering the purchase, tribal chiefs James W. Ransom and Barbara Lazore had no plans to keep the store operational. (The third chief, Lorraine White, removed herself from the purchasing decisions due to her previous working relationship with the store owners.)

Their intentions in making the purchase were to turn the store into tribal offices and either use the 609 acres to build subdivisions, or lease or sell to tribal members who had no land on the reservation. The store sits in the tribe's land claims area and the tribe plans to apply to take all 609 acres into trust through the federal government's Section 184 land-into-trust process.

Following the announcement of their plans, council members were flooded with phone calls and pleas to keep the store open. Community members had been enjoying the luxury of a grocery store for just a few short years and they hadn't yet forgotten the 15-mile drive they previously had to make for a simple grocery item.

''We had heard from community members that they wanted us to keep the IGA open to meet the needs of the community,'' the council said. ''The requests came not only from tribal members, but from members from the northern [Canadian] half of the community as well. This support for keeping it open weighed heavily in our decision to keep it open.''

The tribal council considered the overall benefits of a tribally owned grocery store, and not long after they had announced the store would be shut down and turned into an office building, they made a new announcement that they'd be keeping it open.

The decision was not without some reservations, however.

''The profitability of the operation was paramount for us,'' the council said. ''We did not want to get into a business venture that would require financial support from the council. A review of the financial information on the operation showed that it was making a profit and that it should not be a drain on the tribal general fund to operate it.''

Although entering the food business is a new venture for the tribe, it's accustomed to running money-making businesses. Both the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and the Mohawk Bingo Palace are tribally owned and they bring in millions of revenue dollars to the tribal community.

''It is a new venture for the tribe, one that wasn't planned for, but one that arose when an opportunity to purchase the property presented itself to the tribe,'' the council said. ''It is important that it be operated in a sound financial manner just like any other business. It will be subject to the same audit requirements that are imposed on other tribal entities.''

Though the tribe's gaming operations are successful and bring some financial stability to the community, the council said financial experts have advised them that tribes should not depend solely on one source of revenue.

''So, the tribe is constantly exploring other business opportunities,'' the council said. ''The tribe continues to work on developing a telephone company and creating a tribal electric utility.''

When it opened in 2005, the First Americans IGA was said to be the largest IGA store in the continental U.S. It currently employs 53 people, all of whom kept their positions when the transfer of owners was made.

Along with traditional supermarket items, the store also features a Quiznos restaurant, a fast-food chicken establishment, a dollar store and a flower and balloon center.

Now that the store is tribally owned, the council is considering moving its pharmacy to the IGA, which could mean longer, more convenient hours. The council is also looking at using the IGA as a location for a credit union it's planning to develop in Akwesasne.

The tribal council is also looking at other ways the store's tribal status could benefit the community.

''We are implementing a 5 percent discount card for community members who shop there,'' the council said. ''We have [also] received requests from tribal programs to hold community events at the IGA due to its central location and its amenities conducive to their events.''