Listen: Mille Lacs Band Looks Beyond Gaming

Mainstreet Radio’s Leif Enger reports that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe are looking ahead at a future without gaming. Like many Indian tribes, the Mille Lacs Ojibwe got an enormous boost from gaming in the 1990s. Its two casinos brought in millions of dollars annually, and hundreds of new jobs. Now the Band is trying to broaden its economy.

The last decade of the century was the first of prosperity for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. A tribal entrepreneur program has brought in restaurants and gas stations. It boasts new schools and streets, a big hotel, water and sewer hookups, and newly built government offices. The band also invested in a bottled-water company, and has purchased two banks in three years.


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LEIF ENGER: The last decade of this century was the first of prosperity for the Mille Lacs Ojibwe. To most Minnesotans, the tribe had always been that poor community crouched along the shore of the state's best-known Walleye Lake, a collection of rickety homes and a couple of missionary chapels. Then in the early '90s, the band opened two casinos. The stream of money has kept them building ever since.

Now, the Mille Lacs Band, which numbers about 3,000 members, boasts new schools and streets, a big hotel, water and sewer hookups, newly built government offices. This kind of development was unimaginable at Mille Lacs a generation ago. And the band corporate commissioner, Ken Mimmack, says straight out, it won't last forever.

KEN MIMMACK: Every business has a business cycle. Business is good. And then sometimes business plateaus. And then sometimes industries change. When you're creating an economy, in order for it to be stable, we have to be looking in all those arenas so that we have the ability to withstand a decline maybe in a certain industry or business.

LEIF ENGER: Creating an economy might seem like grandiose language, but it's Mimmack's job description. Ever since the rise of Indian casinos, the Minnesota legislature has conducted an annual debate over whether and how to cut in on the gaming action. The band corporate commission is supposed to make sure the reservation doesn't collapse if its share of the gaming market suddenly drops.

That means widening the employment base beyond the 2,000 jobs at the two casinos. It means courting new industries. It means encouraging what till now has been the rarest of enterprises-- the Indian-owned small business.

KEN MIMMACK: We have 26 entrepreneurs that are operating businesses right now. And it's really exciting because when you look at a group of people who aren't necessarily real outgoing or risk takers, these people are really explorers in their field, so to speak. They've decided to take that bold step and try to put a business plan together and go into debt and start to learn from a hands-on, frontline standpoint how to run a business.

LEIF ENGER: Michael Kalk, preparing a latte for a customer from the casino, calls his coffee shop his baby. It hasn't been easy. But his baby's a year old now.

MICHAEL KALK: It's top of the line. It's a total Rolls Royce of the espresso machines. It really is.

LEIF ENGER: Kalk is one of many Mille Lacs members who have returned after years working elsewhere-- in his case, 13 years in the Twin Cities. When he learned the band was starting a program for entrepreneurs, he saw an opportunity to move home. The corporate commission helped him craft a business plan then approved his loan.

MICHAEL KALK: I don't believe in anything for free. I believe that we should have to work for everything we acquire in life. I don't believe in anything for free. Believe me, we can get out there and work just like anybody else. And I'm not going to take out a free handout.

LEIF ENGER: Kalk alludes to the way some tribes, like the Mdewakanton Sioux in Shakopee, handle their casino profits, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual band members, creating a wealthy and often unemployed class. The practice is the subject of some muttering at Mille Lacs in tones of disgust or envy. But most members seem to agree with Kalk. Ron Johnson is head of surveillance at the band's Casino, in Hinckley.

RON JOHNSON: Sure, the per capita checks would have been nice. But then once those were gone, then what? We want everyone to excel, to believe in themselves that they can do things that they weren't able to do before-- hold down good jobs, support themselves and their families.

LEIF ENGER: Construction is nearly done on the new Woodlands National Bank in the nearby community of Onamia. Rare evidence of prosperity on this clapboard-dominated main street, the new building replaces the old bank next door, which the Ojibwe bought in 1996. It was the band's first acquisition of a business off the reservation, a bank on the downslope, full of bad loans and obsolete computers. Yet Woodland president Lew Anderson says the band's biggest problem was PR.

LEW ANDERSON: The initial reaction, which was in March of '96, was that a number of people left.

LEIF ENGER: In 1996, the Mille Lacs Band was still fighting its treaty fishing rights case against the state. The tribe's move into banking heightened some residents' fears that the Indians were taking over. With the case now resolved, those fears seem to have subsided. But the band still has what it says is the only bank-holding company in the nation owned by Native Americans. Anderson says people are still getting used to that.

LEW ANDERSON: It's interesting that often, if we turn down a white person on a loan, their comeback is, I knew that would happen when the Indians owned the bank. But then we turned down an Indian customer for a loan. Their comment is something like, what's the sense of owning a bank if we can't borrow there? So we get it from both directions.

LEIF ENGER: Yet the bank has made a stunning turnaround under the band. It implemented a new stricter lending policy, a new risk rating plan. It put ATMs in both casinos, a no-brainer, Anderson says.

Perhaps most importantly, the bank has pursued the growing number of Mille Lacs members who are working and saving. In the last 18 months alone, 200 band members have opened new accounts. Corporate commissioner Ken Mimmack says what was largely an unemployed, non-banking society will step into the next century prepared and productive.

KEN MIMMACK: We are in the process of putting together what I will call our sales package to embark upon the 3Ms of the world or the Honeywells of the world or what have you. The unique thing about the Mille Lacs Band is that they have the ability to provide assurances for business partners that other Indian tribes can't. So the band is getting ready to start knocking on some of those doors.

LEIF ENGER: Last month, the Ojibwe announced the purchase of a second bank, this one in Hinckley. Mimmack calls financial services integral to what lies ahead, the piece-by-piece construction of the band's future post-gaming economy. Leif Enger, Minnesota Public Radio.


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