Tina Danforth was elected to her second term as Chairwoman of the Oneida Tribe this summer, having previously served as chairwoman from 2002-2005 and also as treasurer. Danforth, a graduate of UW-Green Bay, also is chairwoman of the Native American Bancorporation and second vice president of the Native American Financial Officers Association. Danforth sat down with Insight Associate Editor Nikki Kallio to discuss economic development plans for the Oneida Reservation, the completion of the $28 million Oneida Casino renovation and her thoughts about the proposed Menominee Casino project in Kenosha.
I was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Chicago, and then I moved to Oneida when I was 13. I raised three adult children in Oneida, and I have seven grandchildren. I’m totally invested in my community, but I also understand there’s a larger economy.
As a tribal leader, I will always support the endeavors of other tribes. We have a longstanding relationship with the Menominee people, and our reservation is ceded territory from the Menominee people. There’s an economic opportunity for the Menominee to expand their business around gaming (with the proposed Kenosha casino), and I do support it from a political standpoint. I think it’ll be beneficial to a tribe that has the highest poverty level in the state.
I think there’s opportunity for us to partner with the Menominee. We’ve had preliminary discussions around that, but nothing is framed out. We have things we can offer from a financial standpoint. We have our own bank and we have expertise around serving the gaming customers.
We just did a $28 million expansion of our casino facility (completed in July). The casino expansion is self-funded. We just finished our 20th anniversary of the main casino, so it’s been that long since we’ve addressed the cosmetics and the facility. We brought in a vendor, Ovations Food Services, to do our food amenity. We partnered with the Vince Lombardi family for a Lombardi restaurant and the food there is great. We do eventually want to start focusing on some of the amenities around the hotel.
We just went through a very hard winter that kept people at home. Gaming is a revenue that’s primarily based on tourism and disposable income. We’re kind of at that point where the recession hasn’t quite gone away.
We just started a new fiscal year so our projections are conservative. We are going to be seeing a reduction of our annual budget. We’re at $443 million for 2014, and we’re going to be working with about $410 million for 2015. We’re going to have to prioritize our spending and prioritize need versus community demand. We’re at a critical point, where we have to analyze where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. We’re in that transition between growing and catching up.
We have two things going on at once with (the Highway 54/Highway J) area. There is a brownfield cleanup with demolition of the BP gas station, so now it’s a matter of just cleaning up the surface, and then looking into further development. Across the street is the Oneida Tribe One Mobil station, and we’re hoping this summer to break ground on a whole new renovation.
The Vision Oneida initiative has been to develop a retail amenity in Oneida, and we need to define more specifically what type of retail. Some kind of food amenity is going to go into the renovation of the Mobil on Highway 54, along with renovations of the small casino inside.
We want to further develop our cultural center. We want to redo the museum at some point. Our museum is small, it’s a little bit off the beaten path, so we would like to make that more centralized on the Highway 54 corridor.
We have an agreement right now with UW-Madison to do some feasibility studies around a food system. There’s always been a desire to have more of our food products in the school system, because we’re feeding our children every day.
I would really like for us to see job opportunities created beyond the current sources of industry. We’re going to continue to look at opportunities that fit our philosophy as a tribe, to accommodate the health needs, environmental needs, cultural needs and the business opportunities that exist.