Far Horizons

Posted on Oct 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Rick Hill, photo by Shane VanBoxtel of Image Studios

On any given evening, the group might include Percy Powless, Loretta Metoxen, Pete Jordan, Sonny King, Bob Thomas, Amelia Cornelius and others. And while they didn’t agree on everything, they were certain of one thing: If the tribe was to survive for future generations, it would have to develop its own sustainable sources of revenue. Norbert Hill, a machinist, had just moved his family back to Oneida from Michigan, but even while in Michigan he had returned home for major tribal meetings.

“These people didn’t just talk about providing for future generations, they lived it,” says Hill.

By 1976, as a 23-year-old, Hill had joined his father and the others on the Oneida Executive Committee and helped develop the tribe’s first business enterprises like bingo and cigarette sales. Today, at 57, Hill is the chairman of an Oneida Tribe that has developed multimillion-dollar businesses that include gaming, hotels, retail, banking, agriculture, land development, construction and engineering. He thinks about what the future holds for the three children he and his wife, attorney Donsia Strong Hill, are raising in Oneida.

The horizon is clearly different now than in the 1960s and 1970s. “There was not a lot of business being done anywhere in Indian Country at that time,” says Hill, sitting in the tribal chairman’s office in the Norbert Hill Center, named for his father. He glances out the window, toward the tree-filled landscape that has been the Oneidas’ homeland since the mid-1800s, when the tribe was relocated here from New York. It reflects on the economic growth the Oneidas have experienced in recent years.

Besides tribal offices, the Norbert Hill Center houses a high school, a Head Start program and education offices. The Oneidas bought the building and surrounding land in 1984 from the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, which had operated the Sacred Heart Seminary there. Before that, the land had been the site of the Oneida Indian Boarding School, and the tribe considered the reacquisition of that and other former Oneida land a key element in developing a sustainable tribal economy.

The tribe had established a land acquisition fund in 1982, at a time when the tribe owned only about 2,000 acres of the 65,000 acres allocated to it in 1887. Today, the tribe owns about 17,000 acres. (See “Back to the land,” page 31.) That strategy of land reacquisition is only part of how the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin has become a self-sustaining enterprise, but it says a lot about the vision of those early leaders and the commitment of others to adhere to a long-range vision and philosophy.

It’s not a coincidence that one of the tribe’s business enterprises is called Oneida Seven Generations Corp., formed in 1996. The name suggests the foundation for all of the tribe’s business and economic decisions – to ensure that resources exist for at least the next seven generations. It’s a concept that dates back centuries in Oneida culture. That concept of planning 200 years into the future might seem at odds with a business culture that often focuses on the next quarterly profits report, but it fits right in with an emerging corporate philosophy that focuses on sustainability.

“We have to be mindful of providing revenue to help sustain the current generation, but the deals we look to make at Seven Gens are not based on short-term gains,” says Kevin Cornelius, CEO of Oneida Seven Generations Corp. “We’re always looking to develop long-term revenue streams.”

On a long conference room table in the Seven Generations headquarters, Cornelius and Pete King III, a Seven Generations project manager, spread out the details of the corporation’s latest venture: a multimillion-dollar energy generation project that will capture approximately one-third of Brown County’s waste stream and convert it to electrical power, which can then be sold to utility companies. That will reduce county waste treatment costs, produce revenue for the tribe and create 30 to 40 jobs, says King. It also fulfills the corporation’s mission “to promote and enhance economic diversification to develop long-term income streams,” he adds.

“I got my college education through the tribe as a result of decisions others made many years ago,” says King. “My job now is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the generations to come. This is real for us.”

A revenue base for the generations

The Oneida Nation is much like any other municipality in that its citizens require community infrastructure, police and fire protection, as well as health and other social services. The challenge, says Hill, is that “we’re a municipality without a tax base.” Clearly tribal revenue would have to come from business development.

Initial efforts in the 1970s included a musical instrument repair business, a nylon production factory and cigarette sales, “but we knew we would need a lot more than that,” says Hill.

Regaining lost land may have been the tribe’s biggest challenge, but one of the tribe’s best business opportunities came from a plot of land the tribe owns at the intersection of U.S. 41 and state Route 54. The tribe had set up an industrial park there in the 1970s, but little had come of it until the 1980s when land developers proposed using the site to locate Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores, providing the tribe with long-term lease revenue.

“We looked at the demographics and traffic count at that location and it was a very attractive site for retail,” says Hill. That stretch of real estate along West Mason Street is now one of the most valuable retail sectors in Brown County.

In 1988, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act opened an even bigger business opportunity for the Oneidas. The tribe had already operated bingo games, but the gaming act allowed the tribe to begin developing casinos, which now provide $100 million per year or more in revenue for the tribe – perhaps half the tribe’s annual operating budget.

The Tribe operates casinos on West Mason Street in Green Bay, in Ashwaubenon across from Austin Straubel Airport, on Packerland Drive in Howard and on Old Route 29 in Hobart. Gaming still makes up the vast majority of the Oneida Tribe’s income, but gaming revenue nationwide has been down the past two years. Fortunately, Oneida leaders long ago decided that it would be unwise to rely solely on gaming to support the tribe’s needs.

The tribe was one of the first in the United States to develop a hotel operation – initially a Rodeway Inn adjacent to the tribe’s casino on Route 172, across from Austin Straubel Airport. In 1988 the tribe upgraded the facility to a Radisson Hotel and Conference Center and has expanded twice, increasing the number of guest rooms to beyond 400 and more than doubling the size of the conference facilities.

The Oneida Airport Hotel Corp. has held its own during the recession, says Lance Broberg, president. The corporation employs about 450 people, including those at the Wingate Hotel at Austin Straubel and the Thornberry Creek at Oneida Golf Course. A good mix of gaming guests, business travelers and corporate groups has made a difference, he says. “All three segments have been hit by the recession, but we’ve seen growth in the second and third quarters, so it’s heading in the right direction,” says Broberg, a tribal member who majored in hospitality management in college and gained sales and catering experience at the Radisson before being named general manager in 1998 and president of the hotel corporation in 2006.

One of the keys to getting the hotel operation in motion in the 1980s was setting up a separate corporation, insulated from tribal government, says Broberg. Some bankers and corporate developers worried that Indian tribes’ sovereign immunity might make them uncertain business partners.

Establishing the hotel corporation eliminated that fear, “and as it turns out it also allowed the hotel corporation to operate and make business decisions strictly based on business criteria, rather than being subject to tribal politics.”

He leans back in his chair, fingers tented, seeming lost in thought for a moment.

“People have made good decisions about the hotel all along the way,” says Broberg. “Now we’re trying to be part of the economic diversity of the tribe. We’ve been self-sufficient and we’ve been able to provide revenue to the tribe to help provide services, but we’ve also continued to make decisions that are in line with the seven generations philosophy. That’s what I’m most proud of. That’s why I come to work.”

The success of the hotel corporation became a model for several Oneida enterprises that followed, including Oneida Seven Generations Corp. and Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises (OTIE), a construction and engineering firm formed when the tribe acquired TN & Associates in 2008. The firm, which specializes in environmental and infrastructure engineering, won the Wisconsin Department of Commerce 2009 Rising Star Award. OTIE has contracts with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the U.S. Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as several municipalities and private corporations.

Matt Kunstman, managing principal of OTIE, says the engineering firm was “a perfect fit” for the Oneidas, given the tribe’s focus on environmental sustainability and economic diversification. OTIE’s corporate status helps it serve the tribe’s interest by operating as a business, without tribal restraints, says Kunstman, “but we’re always guided in our decisions by the seven generations philosophy.”

Cornelius says Seven Generations Corp. is better able to coordinate business deals with outside enterprises because of its corporate insulation from tribal government.

“We’re wholly owned by the tribe and responsible to the tribe, but we’re able to separate business from politics,” says Cornelius. “We answer to a board of directors and to the business committee, but we have a consistency of leadership that is not always there in tribal government.”

The Oneida Tribe also operates several tribal businesses, including Oneida Nation Farms, Oneida Retail Enterprise, Oneida Bingo and Casino and the Oneida Business Development Unit, which spearheaded the Three Fires and Four Fires hotel developments.

Four Fires is a partnership between two Wisconsin tribes – the Oneidas and the Forest County Potawatomi – and two Southern California tribes – the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians. Four Fires operates a $43 million Residence Inn in Washington, D.C. Three Fires is a partnership of the Oneidas, the San Manuel Band and the Viejas Band, operating a Residence Inn in Sacramento, Calif.

Deron Marquez, founder and CEO of the Academy of Tribal and Local Government and former chair of the San Manuel Band, says the Oneida Tribe’s approach to economic development is both typical of and distinct from most other North American tribes. The focus on long-term sustainability is intrinsic to Native American culture, he says, but the ability to combine that long-term view with the need to diversify the economic base is one that only a handful of tribes have been able to pull off.

“We recognized that need in our tribe and so did the Oneida leaders,” says Marquez, who was a keynote speaker at the Oneida Economic Summit, held earlier this year at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center. “Relying too heavily on gaming revenue or on federal funds leaves tribes vulnerable to economic and political changes. It takes vision to see that and to lay the groundwork for economic diversification. Oneida leaders were able to do that and along with a few other tribes, have become a model for others to follow.”

Loretta Metoxen, a longtime Oneida leader and tribal historian, says she’s amazed to see how the tribe’s economic base has developed since those kitchen table talks in the 1970s.

“I don’t think we’ve maximized all of our resources, but I do think we’ve done a smart thing by adhering to the seven generations concept and diversifying our base,” says Metoxen. “Other tribes I know of have had a very difficult time because they relied so heavily on gaming or on government subsidies. We can do more, but we’ve come a long way.”

“We still have to continue to look at the future and decide where we want to go,” says Hill. “My dad and the others always talked about the need for self-sufficiency and economic development, but that changes with the times. We know our enterprise divisions need to be set up to be able to conduct business in a business time frame, but we always have to make sure we come up with a structure that fits us. I’m very confident looking forward, because we have a good mix of ages in our leadership, with life experiences and young ideas to be able to maintain consistency but also be open to new ideas.

BACK TO THE LAND

Although their original homelands were in the area of New York, the Oneida Nation is scattered today in Wisconsin, New York and Canada. The Oneida Indian Reservation in Wisconsin (a few miles north of Appleton and southwest of Green Bay) is where many members of the Oneida Nation reside. There are over 15,000 registered tribal members in Wisconsin. Nearly 2,500 live on reservation land.

The Oneida Reservation was established by the Oneida Treaty of 1838 and is located southwest of the city of Green Bay and west of the Fox River. It straddles the boundary of Brown and Outagamie counties and includes all or portions of the city of Green Bay, villages of Ashwaubenon and Howard, and the towns of Hobart, Oneida, and Pittsfield. The Oneida Nation once controlled millions of acres of land in the eastern United States, but in 1821 signed a treaty giving up 5 million acres of land in the state of New York, and negotiated with the Winnebago and Menominee nations for land in what would become Wisconsin. Another treaty in 1822 reduced the Oneida’s land in Wisconsin to 3.9 million acres and in 1838 the reservation was reduced again to 65,430 acres. The Indian Allotment Act of 1887 allocated land to individual tribal members rather than to the tribe itself. Most of that land passed into other hands over the years.

In 1983, Outagamie and Brown counties, as well as the towns of Oneida and Hobart, sued to abolish the reservation boundaries. The Oneidas won the suit and began to buy back reservation land. In 1989, the tribe owned 2,473 acres with 1,690 of those acres in tax-free trust. Today, the tribe owns more than 23,000 acres, with about 11,000 acres in trust.