Working relationship still evolving

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FORT YATES, N.D. – Drive up to the front of the offices of Rock Industries Corp. in Fort Yates, and you’d be forgiven if you thought you were in the wrong place.

The building’s front is reminiscent of the grocery store that it once was. Walk through the front door and you are greeted by a friendly receptionist in a setting not unlike one you’d find at a small-town dentist’s office. So, it would be easy to mistake the place and not know it is actually a precision manufacturing facility providing support to the U.S. Army.

Rock Industries is a division of the Standing Rock Development Corp. on the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas. The 3,572-square-mile reservation straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border and is home to more than 8,800 members of the Lakota and Dakota nations (most commonly known as the Sioux). It is a region rich with significance in American history, having been home to the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and the many warriors who bravely fought and resisted the encroachment of the U.S. government in the late 19th century. But, like so many reservations today, the Standing Rock reservation struggles with poverty and suffers from a lack of economic opportunity and good jobs.

The SRST founded the development corporation to create business opportunities on the reservation. A major piece of its effort has been focused on building networks within government and industry to bring those opportunities home to the reservation. One of the most important of these relationships has been with North Dakota’s congressional delegation, in particular Sen. Byron Dorgan.

The senator had been a sponsor of legislation that created a parts-on-demand program for the U.S. Army; the bill was in response to the Army’s ongoing equipment needs due to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. As a result of this congressional action, the Defense Department awarded a contract to Alion Science and Technology to develop a new equipment readiness program.

The result was the “Mobile Parts Hospital,” where temporary manufacturing facilities are set up near the front lines that keep Army equipment fully operational. This program has been credited with decreasing turnaround time for replacement parts and increasing operational rates of success. Because of this, the Pentagon decided to apply the concept to Army operations within the continental United States. That decision allowed Alion to expand its operations and look beyond the company to create new business partnerships.

As Alion was planning to respond to the Pentagon’s new directive, Standing Rock Development Corp. CEO Bill Condon was in Washington, D.C., to meet with Dorgan and other government officials. During his meeting with Dorgan, Condon was introduced to Sid Firstman from Alion; their subsequent conversations directly resulted in the creation of a mutually beneficial partnership between the defense contractor and the Standing Rock Development Corp.

As prime contractor for the Mobile Parts Hospital program, Alion awarded a subcontract to Rock Industries for $1.1 million, with an estimated funding of $1.6 million for its second year of operations. Rock Industries’ mission is to aid Alion in the development of a “stationary” Mobile Parts Hospital program. So far, Rock Industries has manufactured seven projects for the Army. As it approaches its second year of operations, Rock Industries is already looking at producing two more projects and Alion has more projects in the planning stages for Rock Industries.

“The partnership between Alion and Rock Industries is still emerging and evolving,” said Nancy Trask, Alion project manager, adding that Rock Industries’ future looks promising. “Their potential for growth in the defense manufacturing arena is unlimited.”

According to Trask, a big part of that is because of Bill Condon and Rock Industries general manager Mark Snider. For his part, Snider, an enrolled tribal member, cites public and tribal support.

“We’ve had a great response from people applying for work,” Snider said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better response from the public and the tribe.” He pointed out that in addition to providing good-paying jobs for the reservation, Rock Industries also provides an exciting environment for its workers. “It’s simply an exciting place to work. You know, we are a complete startup company and that energizes us each day.”

Each project is unique and utilizes rapid processing technologies that demand quick turnaround. So far, projects have ranged in complexity from boxes that house the dummy landing gear for helicopters while they are being serviced, to wood sills used during the mast assembly for Patriot missiles, to fabricating heat treating racks and baskets.

On a recent trip to Fort Yates, Dorgan met with officials from Alion and Rock Industries. During his tour of the facility, the senator heard directly from employees about their work and saw for himself their craftsmanship.

As Dorgan witnessed firsthand, the work involved is technical and affords employees the chance to apply their welding and woodworking skills. Most importantly, for the seven employees at Rock Industries, the work is steady, the incomes are good and the future looks bright.

With the success of the Alion partnership, Rock Industries is already looking to future expansion. Plans are in the works to make the facility into a world-class machine production shop that will enable the corporation to secure both government and commercial contracts.

“We’ve only begun,” said Condon with a smile. “We are focused on growing Rock Industries and providing even more opportunities for the people of our reservation.”