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Town, tribe intertwined

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“When it comes to the big picture, it’s all one community,” Emily Meisner, owner of The Patio Restaurant, says about the town of Ignacio and the Southern Ute Tribe. Many of the restaurant’s customers during the lunchtime rush are Growth Fund employees – just one indication of the tribe’s economic impact on the town of Ignacio. At left is former longtime Ignacio resident Lucas Martinez Jr., who now lives in Pagosa Springs.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

On the morning of the last Saturday in July, Ignacio’s Goddard Avenue lit up with floats, music and horses participating in the San Ignacio Fiesta parade. A perennial summertime event, this year’s parade was a special one, marking the town’s 100th year. To celebrate, there was one notable new entry, a blue-and-white float topped with a giant white birthday cake puffed up with tissue paper. Members of Ignacio’s Town Board and the Southern Ute Tribal Council waved from the trailer bed in recognition that the town’s history more often than not involves them both.

During the last 100 years, the Ignacio community and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have grown up side by side, their people attending the same schools, frequenting the same businesses and making a living on the same land. The relationship between the tribe now worth billions of dollars and the working class town of 700 has ranged from sensitive to strained to beautifully symbiotic. And during the last century, it has shaped the town in myriad ways.

Job creator

“I don’t think you could possibly say you could be here and not be affected by the tribe,” said Mel Silva, a business owner whose relatives settled in the Ignacio area around 1877, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the Southern Ute Agency.

The town owes its beginnings to the Southern Ute Agency, which employed people like Silva’s relatives as mechanics, agricultural agents and nurses. By the time Ignacio was officially incorporated in 1913, a railroad stop, post office and trading post had sprung up in the area.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Southern Ute Tribe has become a gas and oil-fueled economic powerhouse in the region and the biggest private employer in La Plata County.

The tribe’s ventures, including the business endeavors housed under the Growth Fund, the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum, Sky Ute Casino and tribal administrative services provide an estimated 1,800 jobs, or 6 percent of the jobs in La Plata County.

In the town alone, Town Manager Mike Lee estimated that up to 100 people, or 1 in 4 of the town’s working-age residents, are employed by the tribe. Available data indicate the jobs pay above the county average and include benefits packages that rival other major companies in the region. It’s an asset the town likely wouldn’t have otherwise, said Roger Zalneraitis, head of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.

“It’s improbable that the town would ever attract a 1,000-person company on its own,” he said.

Those employees fill up tables at local restaurants during lunch and even breakfast thanks to the casino’s round-the-clock schedule, said Emily Meisner, owner of The Patio Restaurant, which is just blocks away from the Growth Fund building and Sky Ute Casino.

Tribal members make up about half of the customer base for local businesses such as Shur Valu Market and are the biggest customer demographic for others, like Silva’s Waci-ci Trading Co.

“I used to say if the tribe packed up and went to Pagosa, I would have to go with them,” Silva said.

Community development

The tribe’s ability and its dedication to fund various services for its members is key to many community assets that allow Ignacio to punch above its weight compared with other towns its size.

“It’s got a lot more going for it than any other town of 700 in Southwest Colorado,” Zalneraitis said.

Operating out of a low-slung building on Goddard Avenue, Southern Ute Community Action Programs Inc. is one of those assets. The Southern Ute Tribe applied for federal anti-poverty money to form the program in 1966, and since then, the nonprofit has become one of the five largest in the region. SUCAP serves more than 2,300 people, both tribal and nontribal, with six programs that cover everything from transportation to substance abuse. More than half of the organization’s current funding comes from federal money funneled through the Southern Ute Tribe, while its chronically underfunded youth services program, Ignacio Senior Center and the Road Runner Transit program also are propped up by tribal donations, said Eileen Wasserbach, the nonprofit’s director.

“If funding wasn’t available (through the tribe), the non-Indians who are benefitting from those programs wouldn’t benefit, and that would be a pretty severe blow,” Wasserbach said.

Pine River Community Learning Center has the tribe to thank for a high-speed internet connection that allows it to live-stream college classes from Utah State University. The tribe granted rights of way and kicked in some cash to help Fast Track Communications run fiber-optic cables to Ignacio so the Growth Fund could move its headquarters there in 2005, said Bob Zahradnik, the Growth Fund’s operating director. Other entities, including the school district, are now able to link up to that fiber strand, as well.

A few years before the Growth Fund’s move, the tribe built Sun Ute Community Center. The $9.4 million facility, which is open to community residents and tribal members, rivals the city of Durango’s $15.5 million recreation center, even though Ignacio’s population is just 4 percent of Durango’s.

Inside Ignacio’s public schools, Native Americans make up about 25 percent of students, which is one of the highest percentages among schools across the state.

Native American students learn differently than their peers, and district teachers have to account for that, Ignacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said, but they also get help from the tribe’s education department. The department pays for four additional teachers in the district who focus on assisting Southern Ute students and pays half the cost of a school social worker.

The tribe and the district share student records and collaborate to reduce truancy in schools, and Fuschetto said he counts LaTitia Taylor, director of the tribe’s education department, as another principal when it comes to decisions such as hiring.

“The tribe feels it is a shared responsibility to educate all of our students,” Fuschetto said.

The back and forth

But the relationship isn’t always so clean cut. Economic disparities between the tribe and the surrounding area underlie the community’s tri-ethnic tapestry.

“Things have really changed; we’re the controlling force economically,” said Pearl Casias, a former tribal chairwoman and tribal council member, in reference to the tribe’s financial success in recent decades.

Tribal members receive dividend payments (based on the Growth Fund’s annual profits) that are slightly less than average wages in the county, which locals acknowledge spawns both jealousy and curiosity about how and where that money gets spent.

While the town government must make do with the ups and downs of grants and tax collections, the Southern Ute Tribe’s government is funded by steady revenues from energy royalties that are invested in stocks, bonds and other securities.

Businesses under the tribe’s umbrella get a financial leg up over their counterparts. The restaurants at the Sky Ute Casino and Resort, for example, have massive buying power that allows them to do everything “a little better and a little cheaper,” said John Maskovich, the casino’s director of food and beverage services. The casino’s new $1 million Seven Rivers steakhouse serves as a striking contrast to the recently shuttered doors of three businesses in downtown Ignacio.

Knowing the tribe’s hulking presence as an employer, collaborator and customer, business owners and town officials are hesitant to discuss the tribe with all-out candor.

“They’re the 300-pound elephant in the room,” said Meisner, the restaurant owner. “They’re the largest employer, so people tread lightly and respect their position.”

Geographical gridlock between the town’s boundary and the Southern Ute Reservation, while presenting opportunities for sharing resources, also puts the town in a tight position. A 2-square-mile island in the middle of the Southern Ute’s checkerboard reservation, the town has few areas in which to expand, which impacts revenues and future development.

A smaller town means a tinier tax base, less revenue from sources such as the state highway users tax fund and fewer potential locations to build new housing that could attract more taxpaying residents. Town officials see the Growth Fund as one of the most promising partners to expand the stock of affordable housing in the area but maintain a cautious hesitance toward the issue for fear of somehow jeopardizing the possibility of striking an agreement.

The town has to navigate its relationship with the tribe differently than with other governments because, for example, Tribal Council meetings are closed to the public, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, the town’s planner. Instead of attending a meeting themselves, town administrators have to rely on tribal staff to relay the council’s discussions about issues of mutual concern.

It’s one of those small but noticeable details that the town has adjusted to through the years.

“It’s like having another country next door,” Gillow-Wiles said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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