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Northwestern Native American Tribe Travels on the Road to Development - 2002-11-10


For most Native American tribes across the country, the path to economic independence has been a long one… and there's no end in sight. While a select few have done well with casinos, it's rare to find a tribe that has built a diverse economic base. But reporter Jason Paur has found one, about an hour north of Seattle, along the Pacific coastline: a Washington tribe is cashing in on its casino's success and incorporating the state's first Native American city.

The Tulalip Tribe's executive director, John McCoy, says the idea for this tribal city is nothing new. "The tribal leaders back in the 50's had envisioned a business park here," he says. "But they didn't have the resources to begin it, so all they could do is plan and think about what they wanted in this area."

They've named the development Quil Ceda Village, and now it's a rapidly growing community on the edge of reservation land near a major highway. A WalMart department store and a Home Depot hardware store opened their doors last year, and a bank is on the way… along with many other businesses that serve a typical town.

Driving past the big stores, Mr. McCoy points out the community's first business a small espresso stand operated by a tribal member. That, he says, is what Quil Ceda Village is all about: giving tribal members and the community an economic base to build on. "Prior to the Indian gaming regulatory act we had no major funding strength," he says. "Back in 1990, about 80-85% of our tribal budget was from federal grants. Today it's less than 20% of our budget."

Those federal dollars are based on treaties the Tulalips and other tribes signed in 1855 when they ceded land to European settlers. John McCoy says much of what the government promised was never delivered, so the Tulalips have been forced to pursue their own ideas and projects for economic independence. While the tribe did benefit from the Gaming Act of 1988 that allowed it to build and operate a successful casino along the busy Interstate 5 highway, tribal leadership has worked to become a strong economic contributor to the entire local community. Tulalip commercial developments are now one of the area's biggest employers.

"The Tulalip tribe has been very strategic and very savvy in how they have built their economic base, and they're definitely delving into new territory," says Karen Birkholtz, who is with the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development. "You look at what theyąve done along I-5 in terms of the development with Home Depot and such, thatąs really groundbreaking territory, and a great successful model for a community, be it a tribal or a non-tribal community."

This summer, the tribe broke even more ground when it received a $130 million loan from a group of banks. Only a handful of tribes across the country have received loans as large. The Tulalips will use the money to build Quil Ceda Village's infrastructure, including a sewage treatment plant, roads and a new casino.

Leo Joinette from Bank of America, one of the main lenders, says "we've never had to worry about whether or not we're going to be repaid. It's not many companies that have a plan or a goal that goes out 10 years and actually achieves it and that's what they've done."

What the tribe wants to do next, though, is raising some eyebrows within the local and state governments. John McCoy says, because the Tulalips have built Quil Ceda Village on tribal land and operate it under tribal control, they want to do what any other local community would, collect sales tax from its businesses. "We're putting in all the infrastructure, roads, lights, sewer. Right now, all we're getting is a land lease. We're not getting any of the profits, we're not getting any of the taxes. So we feel we should be able to access those taxes," he says.

Sales tax revenue usually supports county and state services that are provided by the tribe in Quil Ceda Village. Because collecting tribal taxes is an idea that hasn't been tried in Washington before, it has been met cautiously by both state lawmakers and the large chain stores. Mr. McCoy, who won a seat in the legislature November 5, says he'll bring up the issue during the next session in January.

Ten years ago, the Tulalip Casino helped reduce the tribe's dependence on federal money. Tribal leader John McCoy says the authority to collect sales tax could help the Tulalips win total economic independence.

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