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Tribes Work To Diversify Their Economic Impact On Oklahoma

The new Muscogee (Creek) Nation Community Hospital in Okemah.
Brent Fuchs
Journal Record
The new Muscogee (Creek) Nation Community Hospital in Okemah.

Though gaming operations continue to be a large economic focus for Oklahoma’s tribes, they are continuing to reach out into other endeavors. These projects include healthcare, retail, manufacturing, agriculture and more.

The Journal Record newspaper’s recent annual Tribal Economic Impact highlights what tribes are doing besides operating casinos.

Journal Record reporter Molly Fleming talked about the issue on The Business Intelligence Report.


Jacob McCleland: It's the Business Intelligence Report, a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I'm Jacob McCleland and I'm joined by Journal Record reporter Molly Fleming. Molly, thank you for talking with us.

Molly Fleming: Hey you're welcome.

McCleland: Your newspaper recently released its annual tribal economic impact issue. I want to go through a few of these stories, starting with efforts by the Cherokee Nation to diversify its businesses beyond gaming and entertainment. What are the Cherokee's doing?

Fleming: They are doing a lot. The tribe has expanded its business operations to include real estate management, logistics, technology, manufacturing and hospitality. They also built a large shopping center in Tahlequah, where they've brought in several chain restaurants including a Buffalo Wild Wings. Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr., I know, has said before that the tribe's revenue now about 40 percent of it comes from non-gaming sources.

McCleland: The Cherokees are big players in health care in eastern Oklahoma. Tell us a little bit about that.

Fleming: So the tribe is building right now a 500,000 square foot hospital and because of that, the OSU med school is opening a branch there where seeing as we learn more about rural medicine, which will come into play, I know, in another story we're going to talk about later. So this will be one of the largest tribal health care facilities in the country. Once again Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said the tribe is constructing $100 million worth of new health care facilities and clinics, and expanding its business arm to include health care construction management.

McCleland: And the Muscogee (Creek) are replacing their hospitals in Okemah and Eufala. And these are big projects. The Okemah hospital is $55 million dollars and the Eufala one is $35 million. How do these healthcare developments ripple through the local economies of these of these small towns?

Fleming: They provide jobs, which is huge in rural Oklahoma and they're jobs that are not related to gaming or oil and gas. These facilities will give kids there a reason to go to college because they can come back and work at their town hospital. And really it's a lasting legacy. A nearly $60 million investment in the town of 3,000 people, that's a lot of money.

McCleland: Over in Western Oklahoma the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes are working to generate revenue by developing a hotel. They're also working more closely with city officials in Anadarko. What are the city and the tribe doing together?

Fleming: They've done a lot together. Anadarko moved to highlight and celebrate native culture and tribal citizens' contributions. So they add a new park benches and remodeled the visitor's center at the Native American Hall of Fame. In 2016, Anadarko was the first city to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. They also built a flag plaza featuring tribal nations flags. The other part was, though half of the residents are Native American, there were no tribal citizens on the city council until a few years ago. And at that time, city manager Kenneth Corn nominated a Wichita citizen to fill the spot and the tribal members had been weighing in on the city's utility code changes and the city adopted all of the tribe's recommendations.

McCleland: The Choctaw are getting into the pecan business. The harvest wrapped up in mid January. Why did the Choctaw decide to begin growing and selling pecans?

Fleming: They kind of just stumbled into it. The Choctaw Nation had trees on their land and so began managing the 4,500 trees they had. And then it purchased more. In 2016 and 2017, the tribe purchased two additional improved variety pecan orchards south of Idabel that included 3,150 additional trees on 300 acres of pecan property. So now the tribe sells those pecans, they roast them, put some cinnamon and sugar on them, and they sell them in their tribal plazas and casinos. And all these pecans are picked by seasonal and full time employees and then bagged and prepared by residents. So it's become a great job opportunity in that part of the state, which, as you know, has a high poverty level and high unemployment rate.

McCleland: Molly Fleming is a reporter for The Journal Record newspaper. Molly, thank you so much for talking with us.

Fleming: Hey, thank you Jacob.

McCleland: KGOU and the Journal Record collaborate each week on the Business Intelligence Report. You can find this conversation at kgou.org. You can also follow us on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter @journalrecord and @kgounews.

The Business Intelligence Report is a collaborative news project between KGOU and The Journal Record.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond.

Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

The Journal Record is a multi-faceted media company specializing in business, legislative and legal news. Print and online content is available via subscription.

Music provided by Midday Static.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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