Wichita and Affiliated Tribes seeking business success

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ANADARKO, Okla. – Business success has seemingly eluded the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

This small group of 2,300 is one of Oklahoma’s aboriginal tribes. Their once numerous people greeted Spanish conquistadors before the concept of an Indian Territory was conceived.

But try as it may, the Wichitas have had their share of failed business endeavors. In the 1980s, the tribe invested in a hat factory that now sits empty. A tribal bingo operation fluttered then died out. A steakhouse in a prime location by the city’s only Walmart has had its doors shut for months. And it recently opened the doors of its first gaming site, Sugar Creek Casino that sits alongside a major interstate highway running through its jurisdiction.

Tribal Chairman Leslie Standing said the tribe has financial aspirations that go beyond gaming. Oklahoma is home to around 100 gaming sites run by state tribes so investing in gaming is a logical if not long-term choice, he said.

“We have a casino and that’s good,” Standing said. “But we need something besides gaming.”

Now, thanks to federal grants made available under the Restoration and Recovery Act of 2009 through President Barack Obama, the tribe is considering hydroponics farming in a closed carpet factory that shut down in 2001.

The venture would use a 247,000-square-foot industrial site located on Anadarko’s east side. According to Standing, municipal and county officials have expressed a business-friendly attitude to use the old Hollytex Carpets site.

Billed by some as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, the $2.8 billion earmarked for Indian country opens funds to tribes for projects ranging from road improvement to environmental projects to youth mentor programs. And the Wichitas are hoping to get some of the funds for a “green” grant.

This project would be a joint venture between tribal and non-tribal entities without trust land status. The private owners of the former Hollytex Carpets are hoping their defunct business would provide the perfect outlet for an agricultural project that will use no soil to grow produce which can either be eaten by organically-minded people or used to grow fodder for livestock.

Co-owner of the 40-acre property, Jim Ellis, said the location would be perfect for the solar-panel fueled hydroponics operation. Ellis, who lives in Chickamauga, Ga., flew into Oklahoma to look over a proposal viewed by tribal and non-tribal officials April 8.

“This location has a 24-hour delivery span to anywhere in the United States,” he said. “The ideas are good, but we (the U.S.) is so far behind in the market for green energy. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Meanwhile, the road to making a green dream a reality has a short shelf life, officials said. James Ray, of the Native American Business Enterprise Center in Tulsa, thinks the tribes are interested. But he demurred from naming tribes his nonprofit agency was advising.

“The biggest issue is for people to be ready and prepared,” Ray said. “They (tribes) know there’s a lot of money but the specifics will be of their making.”

This is where private consultants can make headway. Anita Dragon, private consultant for the hydroponics venture, said tribes mistakenly take a back seat when accessing grant money. Grants pushing green energy projects could come from U.S. Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy or the Department of Agriculture, depending on the project.

“There’s a short turn around and tribes have to strike quickly.”

What tribal officials hope to decide is whether it will apply for the grant money. That will mean upcoming feasibility studies.

A group looked at a proposal that will basically use hydroponics growing modules to produce barley, oat or corn seedlings which can be harvested every six days. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also amenable to the soil-less growing.

Proponents of the venture said the modules are solar-powered with surplus energy that can be sold for profit. The program is based on a Canadian model that uses portable greenhouses that reduce emissions, giving it a green energy cachet.

Linda Chappabitty, project consultant, said the venture was environmentally minded and preferred by women, who liked the idea of working indoors because hydroponics growing times are not weather dependent and can be productive year-round. She said the health food market potential is enormous.

“I am anticipating a favorable decision by the tribe’s (Wichita) council. People are understanding we can heal ourselves with the foods the Creator gave us if we use it.”

The resulting produce can be sold to grocery chains, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, correctional centers and other areas of food supply, presenters said.

Standing said if approved by the Wichita Executive Committee, the end result could employ tribal members. Obtaining the stimulus funds could be the first step in bringing a business turnaround the tribe wants; and give the Wichitas a reputation of being “green.”

”Farmers are excited by new industry; we can breathe new life into an oil and gas area. No one’s going to come out a loser in this.”