Rick Hill

Posted on Feb 1, 2010 :: Face Time
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Rick Hill, chairman, Oneida Tribe

Richard G. “Rick” Hill is the chairman of the Oneida Tribe and has been involved in tribal government for more than 30 years. He sat down recently with Insight Associate Editor Rick Berg to talk about the Oneidas’ commitment to economic development and the tribe’s long-time philosophy of sustainability expressed in the Seven Generations concept.

My father was Norbert Hill, who was chairman of the Oneida Tribe and served on the Tribal Council for over 30 years, and his mother was Rose Minoka-Hill, who was the second American woman doctor and the first Indian woman doctor. So, I grew up with stories about service to the community and in 1976, when I was 23, I was elected to the Tribal Council – the youngest ever council member. I spent many long days and nights with my father and other great people in tribal government like Percy Powless and Irene Moore. Even then, the tribe had all these visions about what the community could become and how we could improve it.

I served on the Tribal Council for 13 years and when my dad passed away, I served as vice chairman, then chairman of the tribe and later I was elected to the National Indian Gaming Commission, where I served until 2002.

We’re a government without a tax base so we have to raise our own revenues to provide services and programs and the necessary infrastructure for the tribe. We knew we had to develop business enterprises that made sense. Early on, that was bingo and tobacco sales, but later we had an opportunity to develop our light industrial park on West Mason Street. A developer looked at the significant demographics there in terms of traffic count on Highway 41 and Highway 54 and he said it would be a nice location for a Walmart. We were able to make a deal for a Sam’s Club and a Walmart and a Festival Foods, and at the same time we purchased a gas station there. That was the start of getting into more retail. With the Indian Gaming Act of 1988, we were able to develop our casinos, and we got into the hospitality business with the Radisson Hotel across from the airport. So, we were beginning to diversify our economic base.

In the 1990s, the Oneida Farm also started to grow. We raise grass-fed buffalo and Black Angus, along with cash crops like corn, wheat, alfalfa and soybeans. It fits our philosophy about organic farming, which is a big trend now.

More recently, we made the decision to buy the Thornberry Creek Golf Course, so with the casinos and hotel, that adds to the full menu of amenities we have for business visitors and tourists.

One big venture we have going is the OTIE – the Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises, which offers a full suite of construction services such as civil engineering, environmental services and infrastructure engineering. That has enabled us to diversify even further and we’ve done projects all over the country.

As long as I have been involved in tribal government, there have always been conversations about economic development and how we can improve our community. Tobacco and gaming provided a kind of jump start, but we continue to diversify. We have an employment base of approximately 3,000, and less than half of that is involved in gaming.

We also want to be good partners in the community, so we help support the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field and we also have the Walk of Legends project.

In recent years, we’ve acquired 1,608 acres of land, so the tribe now holds 23,871 acres, which is about 37 percent of the 65,000 acres in our original boundaries.

We’re a community that bases its decisions on consensus and community members are very active in everything we do. We have 16,386 members. We also have a constituency that is very conservation minded, so that fits in well with where business is going today.

Everything we do is based on the Seven Generations concept, which is to ask ourselves what we can do today to take care of the next seven generations. We always think about what the impact of today’s decisions will have on future generations.