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With effort, Native businesses can succeed

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DENVER – The promises and pitfalls of small business and the complex paths to success were described by two Colorado Natives concerned about commerce in a time of shrinking profits and budget shortfalls.

The Coloradoans are R. Carol Harvey, Navajo, executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, a longtime energy sector attorney with federal contracting expertise, and Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, former CCIA executive secretary and now director of government affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, where he works as a legislative liaison representing business concerns.

Both addressed the 6th Annual American Indian Business Expo conducted by the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce April 12 – 13.

Harvey, the sixth of seven children, said she learned valuable lessons from her father, who did maintenance work, and her mother, a skilled cook who also ran a small business until she was 82, both of whom said to “get an education,” and to “learn to deal with difficulties.”

As a result, she earned graduate and law degrees and began teaching small business formation and government procurement. She also described learning from more traditional methods, when family members would go without food or water for periods of time “to learn we would be fine, anyhow,” a practice that built “personal strength and personal character.”

Harvey recalled the courage displayed by Navajo leader Manuelito in battle with American forces from 1860 – 1868, enabling Navajo people to remain in their homeland instead of being sent to Oklahoma with other tribes, as had been planned. These and other histories, if told to young people, would foster strength of character, she said.

Tribal nations could make it mandatory for their 18-year-olds to have small business training before they receive their per capita checks so they would have something to build on, she said, noting that businesses contracting with the federal government usually are expected to have working capital before contracts are awarded.

It is important for Native business leaders to have a “wide panoply of information,” in part because Indian businesses that operate in Indian country have different licensing, taxation, and employment and labor laws, she said.

Potential Native businesses dealing with the federal government should “be contract-ready but also shovel-ready,” she said. “Government contracting is not an easy area at all – it takes a lot of diligence and a lot of work.”

Harvey said five percent of federal prime contracts are to be set aside for 8(a) small businesses, which include those owned by Native and tribal entities; three percent are for businesses in HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zone) areas, including Indian reservations; three percent are for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses, and five percent are to go to woman-owned small businesses, although certain parts of that program are not in place at present. The programs are not mutually exclusive.

From the legislative side, House denounced current bills that could be harmful to business interests in the state and pointed out that Colorado has been in a “dire situation” financially, with a $1.3 billion shortfall remaining in the next fiscal year.

One piece of pending legislation could eliminate all the enterprise zones created for distressed areas including job-scarce Montezuma County, where the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is located.

House, whose great-grandfather was the last Ute Mountain Ute traditional chief, said the tribe is focusing on renewable energy and water projects and on expanding opportunities for its Weeminuche Construction Authority company.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, also located in southwestern Colorado, is “known throughout Indian country as one of the top tribes” in business ventures, he said, noting that the tribe’s Red Cedar Gathering Co. is the third-highest natural gas-producing firm in its immediate area.

House also cited two other Southern Ute ventures in Colorado, including the multimillion-dollar, 500-unit Spire in downtown Denver, the largest residential high-rise condo development in the city’s history, according to developers, which is located across from the Colorado Convention Center.

The tribe also has a large investment in multimillion-dollar Belmar, a mixed-use community which provides an urban core for Lakewood, a Denver suburb and the state’s fourth-largest city.

Those investments, as well as others, are part of the tribe’s long-term investment strategy along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, according to an asset manager for the tribe’s Southern Ute Growth Fund’s GF Properties Group.

Among other speakers at the business expo were Margo Gray-Proctor, Osage, president of Horizon Engineering Services Co., Tulsa, Okla., and chairwoman of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.