Reno-Sparks Indian Colony blaze trail of economic development
A nation operating within a city, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) is blazing its own trail of economic development while being mindful of the place it plays in the big economic picture.
“When the reservation’s economy is strong, the state’s is strong,” RSIC Chairman Arlan Melendez said during an interview with the NNBW at the colony’s offices.
The RSIC’s 1,150 members are from the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe tribes. The reservation lands consist of the original 28-acre colony in Reno, of which only about two acres can be put to commercial use, and another 1,920 acres in Hungry Valley.
Like any governmental body, the RSIC needs revenue to provide services for its members including health care, infrastructure, courts, bus service between Hungry Valley and the Reno colony, fire protection, economic development and much more. Recently they’ve been faced with the need to replace an aging snowplow.
The colony created its planning and economic development department in 1975 to provide a revenue stream to pay for essential government services.
Among the major impediments to economic progress is the long history the tribes have had under “paternalistic oversight.”
“Before Native Americans were on reservations, they were self-supporting,” Chairman Melendez said.
“Then they became wards of the government with paternalistic oversight. That’s a drawback. It doesn’t enhance the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
Melendez, a Paiute, has served on the Tribal Council for 28 years and as chairman for 26 years.
In recent decades, the colony has branched out from its revenue mainstay, the sale of tobacco products.
“In the early ‘90s it was tough just to rely on tobacco,” said Steve Moran, director business enterprises & economic development for the RSIC. Moran has worked for the tribes for nearly 25 years. “Tobacco was declining. It became critical that we diversify.”
Working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which holds the parcels of land in federal trust for the colony, the RSIC purchased 100 acres in various locations around Reno, parcel by parcel.
One target has been the purchase of industrial property around the colony. The tribe has cleaned up the property and repurposed it to create a non-industrial buffer zone and a revenue stream by leasing the property to businesses.
The most obvious tribal enterprise is the Three-Nations Wal-Mart, located on 2nd Street across Interstate 580 from the main tribal land.
During development of the project, the colony partnered with Washoe County Flood Control Project, the Washoe County Public Works Department, Nevada Department of State Lands, and Wal-Mart to develop a 0.4-mile-long floodwall and levee along the south bank of the Truckee River to protect the 22-acre site, which Wal-Mart leases from the colony.
An offshoot of the Wal-Mart project is that the Colony funded the design and construction of a new Northern Nevada Transitional Housing Center for the Nevada Department of Corrections. The old facility was on land that the Colony bought for the Wal-Mart project.
The RSIC is also sharing revenue from the Wal-Mart property with other jurisdictions. Feb. 28, they will present the first of what will become an annual revenue sharing check to the Washoe County School District.
Farther south in Reno, the RCIS owns land leased to several auto dealerships: Mercedes-Benz of Reno, Acura of Reno, Infinity of Reno and CarMax.
While the RSIC’s business ventures provide substantial revenues for the operation of the colony, officials are increasing efforts to encourage entrepreneurship among its members.
The tribes’ model is like a start-up incubator with the tribe providing space at essentially no rent, Chairman Melendez said. When the new business is strong enough to go on its own, it moves into another place and the space is used by another tribal startup.
In January, tribal member Johni Bills opened a skin-care salon, Alluring Beauty, in the Pyramid Smoke Shop in Sparks as a start-up. Stone Mother Roasting is an example of another business begun by members in an incubator setting that is now operating on its own.
The RSIC hopes to use the incubator model strategy to also help the many crafts people in the tribe, who have had limited opportunities to sell their crafts.
“That’s an area I think we might be able to provide space for on a more consistent basis,” Melendez said. “Anything we can get to support ourselves, I think is a good thing.”
The colony also provides workshops to teach colony members how to start a business and works with educational organizations to ensure the colony’s young people have the career training they need, whether its college preparation or vocation training.
The Chairman said one of the goals of the tribal government is to curb unemployment.
“We’re fortunate to be in the city. The surrounding city provides jobs,” he said, noting that rural tribal colonies have a harder time with unemployment.
Although there is no formal agreement that Wal-Mart hires members of the tribes for its Three Nations center, the company does work with the colony’s human resources department to place tribal members when possible.
“Wal-Mart has made an effort to reach out to the tribal community for employment,” Moran said.
Not only does the city provide job opportunities for tribal members, but the colony also provides jobs for the community at large.
Within its many departments, the colony employs 355 people, according to the RSIC website. Of these 166 are members of the RSIC, 95 are Native Americans from other tribes, and 94 are non-Native Americans.
Besides those directly employed by the colony, the RSIC’s projects contract with many outside companies from architects to construction contractors.
“There’s a mutual benefit for local jurisdictions,” Moran said.
The RSIC’s economic development department also carries out design and development services for colony projects such as the $20 million Reno Sparks Tribal Health Center on Kuenzli Lane along the Truckee River. The 65,000-square-foot health center opened seven years ago and provides health care services to its members and other Native Americans in urban Washoe County.
The location of the health center was designed, not only for the needs of the colony, but to fit into what the city is doing, said Stacey Montooth, the RSIC’s public relations community information officer.
“In our land use plan, we’re trying to be compatible with what the city is doing,” Montooth said. “We’re thinking ahead about what we’re trying to locate there. And the (nearby) river has a cultural component.”
The Reno Sparks Tribal Health Center is near the Renown Regional Medical Center in keeping with the healthcare industry of the area.
The colony’s business acumen recently earned the RSIC an upgrade to its credit rating. They now have a BBB investment grade rating from Fitch Ratings.
They are now in the process of refinancing the health center at a lower interest rate with the new rating, which will save the colony about $1.5 million in 10 years.
As the economy in the Reno-Sparks region as a whole continues along a path of growth, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is ensuring its own independent part in the prosperity.