Look Beyond Gambling and Tobacco
President Robert Porter of the New York-based Seneca Nation of Indians told tribal government leaders and entrepreneurs at the Reservation Economic Summit (RES), hosted by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, in Las Vegas on March 15 that his tribe operates three casinos and sells its fair share of cigarettes. "Our nation has three casinos -- we do very well with it. We also sell an awful lot of cigarettes," said Porter, reported the Associated Press.
But he emphasized that tribes need to diversify their economies. "It's just too narrow for the future," he said, recommending tribes looking beyond the gaming arena and cigarette manufacturing and sales, reported the AP.
He also suggests working with the federal government to leverage more freedom over tribal lands to create new revenue streams. "We need to ask them to let us be free to make our own money, let us be free to sustain our own nations," Porter said.
The Seneca economy generates some $1.1 billion annually, and employs more than 6,500 members and non-Indians, primarily through its gaming, tobacco and gasoline ventures. The tribe operates casinos in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo. It manufactures and sells tobacco wholesale and retail. It also oversees all Seneca One Stops, gas and convenience stores. The Nation created its private investment vehicle, Seneca Holdings LLC, in 2009, states its website. It also seeks to acquire the license to operate the Kinzua Dam and Allegheny Reservoir in Warren, Pennsylvania.
Chairman Robert Martin of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians echoed Porter's thoughts that tribes should consider other investments. "You just have to diversify," Martin said. Martin acknowledged businesses cannot succeed without customers. Tribes can attract customers by selling goods and services in high demand, he told the RES attendees, reported the AP.
The Morongo Band runs Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in southern California, and recently added a 36-hole golf course, the Beaumont, California-based The Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon, to its portfolio. It operates one of the largest Shell gasoline stations in the country, an A&W drive-in restaurant, the first Coco's restaurant ever owned by an American Indian tribe, three Hadley Fruit Orchards' retail stores, and last year it acquired the $26 million Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water bottling plant, according to the tribe's economic story on its website.
Despite a few shining examples of tribes that have successfully diversified their economies, investment challenges such as accommodating 3,000 shareholders set tribes like the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, based in Alabama, back. "For me to determine that I'm going to invest $1 to $1 million in a company that's coming in, it takes appropriate due diligence and it's not something that's going to be quick," said Robert McGhee, treasurer for the Poarch Band, reported the AP.