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Morongo opens water bottler

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MORONGO INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. ? The Morongo Band of Mission Indians held an announcement ceremony to unveil construction of a $26 million water bottling plant for a subsidiary of the Perrier Group of America, a division of the French water behemoth. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., attended the ceremony Jan. 11.

The 383,000 square foot plant, which is expected to open this summer, will operate under the auspices of Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, which is the leading seller of bottled water in the western United States. The Morongo plant will distribute water throughout California, the Pacific Northwest and Arizona.

"This is not just a real estate transaction or sale of resources. We are a partnership between the sovereign Morongo Band of Mission Indians and America's largest and most experienced water bottler," said Peter Rittenhouse, head of western regional operations for Perrier.

Morongo tribal officials claim the bottling plant will hire 260 workers and create 1800 new jobs overall in the delivery and distribution process.

Tribal chairman Maurice Lyons says that bottling plant will make every effort to hire and purchase materials for the plant in the local area, which includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Current plans call for initial production of two product lines, distributed under the Arrowhead label. When completed the tribe expects the plant to manufacture a total of 10 product lines and be the largest water bottling facility in the United States.

Lyons outlined what he sees as the three major benefits of this business venture. First, Arrowhead gains access to the high quality spring water found in Millard Canyon in the back country of the Morongo Reservation; second, the tribe enlists the expertise of an already successful water bottler; and third, economic benefits are projected for the local inland Southern California economy.

"Economic diversification is in the cards for Morongo as well as for many California Indian tribes who will increasingly seek economically viable alternatives to help raise living standards for one of the most impoverished ethnic groups in the United States," said Lyons.

Morongo has been a leading tribe on the issue of economic diversification in the Golden State. The tribe credits legalized Indian gaming as a springboard to other economic activities. However, Lyons said that the Morongo tribal casino should act as a catalyst for a sound and diversified economy, and described the bottling plant as just the latest phase of a diversification strategy.

"Diversification will be the key to the tribes' continued economic success," said California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.

After opening the tribal casino nearly two decades ago, Morongo has invested in several projects, starting in 1983 with the largest Shell gasoline station in the country. Two years later the tribe opened a fast food A&W restaurant that the tribe claims is one of the most successful of the franchise. Additionally the tribe also operates a Coco's restaurant and three Hadley Fruit Orchard retail stores.

Morongo currently employs more than 1,500 people and has become one of the largest private employers in the inland region of Southern California.

The tribe has an annual payroll of over $25 million that is subject to payroll taxes. The tribe reports that more than two-thirds of its workers come from Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The tribe has also made numerous donations to local charities and hosts a large-scale Thanksgiving dinner annually mainly for migrant workers.