Let a business decide when it needs to expand, don't over extend the
budget, don't overbuild and take it a step at a time. That's what the Bois
Forte Band of Chippewa did with their Fortune Bay Resort and Casino.
The revenue from their 8-year-old resort with its attached casino has been
a boon for the Bois Forte Band. Now with a new golf course, located on one
of the premier fishing and recreational lakes in Minnesota, the economic
future looks positive.
On the shore of Lake Vermillion there is a resort with a casino attached.
It is very different from others in the state where the casino is the main
attraction. Fortune Bay is located four hours from the Twin Cities of
Minneapolis/St. Paul. A drive to Fortune Bay will take visitors past two
other Indian casinos that are even larger than Fortune Bay, but the others
don't have the seventh largest lake in Minnesota as a backdrop. Fortune Bay
Casino is one of the smaller in the region with only 700 coin drop slot
machines. The resort has 116 rooms, which are full most of the time.
Recently a $10 million golf course opened. The course boasts high-tech
gadgetry including GPS systems in every cart, a computerized watering
system and a fully-equipped clubhouse with restaurant. The property is
handled by a management company because the Bois Forte Band had no
experience in running a golf course. Fortune Bay and the Wilderness Golf
Course will be the site of the 2005 Midwest Pro Golf tournament.
In 1986 Bois Forte opened high-stakes bingo at Lake Vermillion. The first
employee was Bill Tibbetts, who is now public relations manager for the
casino and resort. He has also held other jobs including CEO of the casino.
As he tells it, he has been up and down the ladder and held every job.
Tibbetts drew up the original employment contracts which began the start of
a successful, calculated enterprise.
"We started with 55 employees and now have more than 400," Tibbetts said.
Some of the employees have been with the organization from the beginning
and have moved into management positions. Twenty-seven percent of the
employees are American Indian. The Nett Lake Reservation of the Bois Forte
is 60 miles away and takes more than an hour to drive, which prevents many
Nett Lake residents from working at the resort, Tibbetts said.
He said the operation was started on a shoestring, some salaries received
government subsidy and the expansion proceeded with the resort opening in
This was all accomplished without a management company that would take a
percentage of the revenue. Control of the resort is in the hands of a
seven-member board appointed by the reservation tribal council. Each board
member must have a business background.
"We paid off the resort in seven years," Tibbetts said. Money had to be
borrowed from time to time, but it was always well within set limits.
One of the success stories of Fortune Bay is the fact that it is involved
with every Chamber of Commerce in the region and is also a member of the
Arrowhead Tourism organization. Tibbetts said he was instrumental in
encouraging the many resorts on Lake Vermillion to impose a lodge tax that
would be used to promote the lake. Bois Forte officials and managers also
participate in other community activities.
While visiting with Tibbetts in his office he received a phone call from
the community of Tower. He was asked to become a member of the economic
development board. He had served on the county planning and zoning board
previously and was the first American Indian president of the Tower Chamber
Those connections and involvements have created a successful atmosphere
with other businesses in the area that benefit everyone, Tibbetts said.
The region around Bois Forte is known in Minnesota as the Iron Range. The
iron mines for decades created a wealth of jobs for the region. But in the
1980s the mines began to cut back or close, which left the area vulnerable
for a major economic crash.
"We have taken over for mining," said band Vice Chairman Gordon Adams Jr.
"We have the best benefit package in the area, we do our part. We
contribute $9 million to the local vendors a year, we hire union labor for
all construction, we employ union trade people and we are not required to,"
And the organization provides scholarships for all employees with tuition
and books paid. "We have had several get degrees. We provide flex time for
them to attend so they can expand their job opportunities," Adams said.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Plans to expand the resort are under discussion.
"We have weddings and family reunions and we need more rooms," Adams said.
"We have to plan for the unexpected day that casinos will either close or
have competition. We are not just a casino, we are a destination resort,"
Adams said a strategic plan was in place to map out the future of the Bois
Forte and Fortune Bay. He said the planners would seek ideas to provide
greater amenities for families, fishing and hunting. And in the winter
months, which are also very busy at Fortune Bay there can be up to 500
snowmobiles in the parking lot at one time.
Cross country skiing is also a big attraction and ice fishing on Great
Walleye Lake has become one of the region's most desired activities.
To a Minnesotan, fishing is at the top of sporting hobbies or weekend
activities. In 2005, one of the biggest fishing events in Minnesota will
headquarter at Fortune Bay - the Governor's opener.
Hundreds of sports writers and thousands of fishermen will take to Lake
Vermillion in search of the famed Walleye. This is one of the most
talked-about events for the Fortune Bay team. It will be the first time in
history that an American Indian tribe hosted the event and the first time
it will be held on Lake Vermillion.
Leadership talks about the good will that should come from such an event.
It also means more customers. "We need more rooms," said Andy Datko,
development director for Fortune Bay.
"We need more meeting rooms and conference space and more business meeting
space. We may add some entertainment of some type," he said.
A ballroom that separates into several rooms is tied up most of the time
and additional space is needed. No commitments have been made so far.
Fortune Bay planners will search out the demand and potential first. "It
would be a mistake to build first," Datko said.
As an example, the Wilderness Golf Course was under study for years before
it was built. Datko said the economy of the '90s was up, but at the end it
faltered and in northern Minnesota it is now in a slump. It was discovered
that the Fortune Bay market was underserved so the study gave the planners
comfort to go ahead. That's how Bois Forte leadership works.
The formula used by Bois Forte may not be successful for others, Datko
said. For instance they have a world-class fishing and recreation lake that
has 1,200 miles of shoreline, 365 islands and every fish known in Minnesota
ready for the catching.
"We work with what we have," Datko said.
The casino also has a 90-mile radius from which to draw customers.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent of our customers come from the Twin Cities and
beyond," Datko said. Chicago is also a good market in the summer months, he
"We have created a unique experience and it would be difficult for the
state to duplicate that," he said.
Future economic development other than Fortune Bay is illusive for the Bois
Forte Band. Nett Lake, the main reservation is not exactly on a main
highway so local businesses operated by tribal members may be out of the
question. However, tribal leaders have not given up and are studying the
prospects and do provide educational opportunities for those who want to
enter the business world. With only 500 residents on Nett Lake the type of
business that will succeed is limited.
The band owns a convenience and grocery store at Nett Lake that provides
basic needs for families. Most grocery shopping is done in Orr, 18 miles
The band had tried to help individual entrepreneurs, but the remoteness of
Nett Lake prevents success. David Danz, development director for the band,
said it was hard to collect on some of the loans that were made.
"We have a stagnant local economy, but we are always looking for
businesses. I've seen so many tribally-owned businesses fail," he said.
While many casinos in northern Minnesota complain of weak profits and say
that their remoteness is the cause, the Bois Forte Band manages Fortune Bay
in such a way that provides a profit and makes a major contribution to not
just the area, but to the reservations of the Bois Forte members.
ECONOMIC BENEFITS FOR MEMBERS
Revenues from the resort do not go directly to the people as there are no
per-capita payments. Programs, infrastructure and education are part of the
investments supported by resort revenues.
Danz said money from the resort is used as leverage to double, triple and
quadruple grant awards that turn into new buildings and infrastructure on
the Nett Lake and Lake Vermillion reservations.
"There was no new development through federal funding, we had problems with
HUD funds and there was no new money from the IHS," Danz said. It was
because of some financial mismanagement, but the council has made the
appropriate changes and grants are now flowing in under Danz's leadership.
Danz said he has only lost one ICDBG grant in 13 years. Much funding has
allowed the band to build a health and social center, a new fire department
building and new ambulance for Nett Lake, and water and sewer systems were
funded by leverage money from Fortune Bay for Nett Lake and Lake Vermillion
The health center cost $722,000 to build. The tribe contributed $190,000
and $100,000 came from the health division, the rest from grants.
"As time moves on there is more un-obligated money from the tribe. I say
give me some money to start with and I can double, triple and quadruple
that investment," Danz said.
A new heritage center that tells the story of the Bois Forte Band was
constructed near Fortune Bay Resort. The cost was $1.46 million and the
tribal council contributed $927,000, Danz said.
The Bois Forte land contains some of the largest timber stands in the
region. The band owns a sawmill that has had limited success. In the 1970s
and 1980s the band lost money and it closed down. That eliminated some
jobs. But the band did some remodeling, bought a new saw with a $500,000
grant award, ran it for awhile and now leases the mill to a private
Housing rehab and new construction is also under way. New homes, financed
though the tax credit system, are under construction and are replacing
older HUD homes. The new homes, multi-level with three to five bedrooms,
will not just provide housing for residents on Lake Vermillion, but at Nett
Lake as well. The funding was leveraged from a council contribution.
For new housing the council contributed $40,000 and another $350,000 came
from HUD, the first in the nation under a specific program, Danz said.
All the money the council contributes comes from Fortune Bay revenues.
An assisted living center was constructed, which is the first on any
reservation. The clinic provides services to the residents of the assisted
The new fire hall and ambulance were purchased with USDA grant money at no
cost to the tribe. Another building called the Net Worth building is used
for fitness and rehabilitation purposes now.
A new $1 million state-of-the-art fitness center will be opening soon. It
is part of the council's plan to attack diabetes by providing a facility
that will promote physical activity to help prevent the disease. Tribal
members will not be charged for use of the facility.
The band owns a road construction company that maintains and builds roads
on the reservations. Under self-governance the band receives $400,000 to
$600,000 from the BIA.
While it may all look easy for the Bois Forte leadership and Fortune Bay
management, it is anything but. The same problems that plague other
reservations still plague the Bois Forte. There is a 35 percent
unemployment rate and drugs and alcohol are a problem. Theft and vandalism
at Nett Lake is an issue as well.
"Sometimes I say we should go back to the primitive ways," said Mary Lou
Boney, Bois Forte elder. "We didn't have all these problems of violence
drugs and alcohol. Things were peaceful. You could leave your doors
unlocked and leave canoes on the lake," she said.
Vera Belt said money is at the root, some people have too much, some not
The two elders want to bring the culture back into daily life and the
language to the forefront of education. The Head Start program has a
language class included in the curriculum, and the two elders were very
supportive of that.
If the two could change things they would go back to the days when they
were children and start over again. Today they see no skating on the lake
and in the hills there is no sliding. They said the children of their youth
would ice down a hill and slide down on cardboard boxes.
"We didn't have TV or video games. Today the kids don't even play," they
The lake was central to life for the Bois Forte. "It was the heart and soul
and is still intact," the two said.
Although much remains to be accomplished, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa
are well on their way.