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Well before the onset of COVID-19, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma had taken steps to diversify its economy, which for years had been bolstered by a healthy tribal gaming division. 

However, the abrupt disruption caused by the pandemic, which resulted in the closure of the tribe’s 22 gaming operations across the country, only highlighted the need to broaden the tribe’s revenue streams. 

As well, the situation also uncovered a dire need for improvements to the tribe’s ailing broadband network, which led the Choctaw Nation to include broadband expansion as a major part of its economic development plan.

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Senior Director of Business Development Tammye Gwin and Senior Executive Director of Commerce Janie Dillard spoke with Tribal Business News about how Choctaw Nation Businesses have focused on recovering from pandemic closures and the enterprise’s future plans and investment strategies.

 

How has Choctaw Nation Businesses recovered from the downturn brought on by COVID-19?

Gwin: So far, our businesses have been successful in our reopenings by engaging our reopening plans. We’ve changed quite a few of our business practices as we adapt to our new normal. Some of our positions are definitely utilizing work from home. This has really highlighted our need for broadband in our underserved communities, not just for our workforce but also so we can attract economic development opportunities. 

Dillard: This has forced us all to start looking at diversification of all of our tribal government. Our tribe had already been doing that for almost 15 years or more. That means looking at our community markets, our casino outlets. It’s really forcing us to think outside the box and having a bigger vision than just gaming. 

Gwin: I think all of the tribes have been focused on diversification efforts for some time. Indian gaming now is a very mature market, and so I think diversification has been one of the focuses of most Indian tribes. We have a strategic and capital plan that we follow, and we’ve been looking at our value chain for diversification for a long time. 

 

What’s the approach to attracting outside partners?

Gwin: We do want to attract non-Choctaw businesses to the reservation. I think most of the tribal citizens have recognized that we can’t employ every Choctaw, and there’s some industries that we can attract to come into the reservation to create jobs. It still gives tribal members a good job for a good quality of life, so we are very active in external business recruitment as well as our internal business development. Both are equally important to us. All it’s going to do is create a positive impact on our whole reservation, so we want to attract those employers to come here. 

 

Likewise, what opportunities do you see to start and grow your own businesses?

Dillard: That’s another thing we looked at: How do we better align our core competencies? You just want to give people more opportunities to develop and grow within themselves, to better not only themselves but also all our communities. For example, we’re looking at our opportunities for processing plants. We own about 6,000 head of cattle ourselves, so we’re looking at how to diversify our ranches to provide more food sources for our people.

To that end, we are building a slaughterhouse and processing plant and we’re hoping to do deer, hogs and cattle. That is in the works now. I’m hoping we’ll have that opened up next year, so we can start providing things like Choctaw-brand food and other products we can supply to markets and retailers. We want to carry that into southeastern Oklahoma. 

 

Talk a little bit about Choctaw Global’s investments and acquisitions strategy.

Dillard: We’re looking at strategic investments, doing that with a lot of different companies. A lot of that’s in Texas. We have a number of senior living facilities in Waco, Texas. A lot of movement is going on in those different areas. Multifamily senior living seems to be a very stable market. It’s growing tremendously, and that’s something we’ve definitely been doing a lot of investing in. It’s hard for a lot of our own tribal people to understand why we have this, but you have to have a diversification arm to make those mergers and acquisitions. 

 

In addition to food processing and real estate, what are other areas of diversification that you look to invest in? 

Dillard: We’re also investing in research and development for drones, working on things like delivering medicine or feeding feral hogs. We’re participating in an integration pilot program through the Federal Aviation Administration’s (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) BEYOND program. This is another whole new arena. I feel like this is the next wave we have coming in our direction. It’s a brand new technology, and there’s a lot of potential there.

Gwin: Since the pandemic, we have tightened and slowly built out our broadband throughout our reservation, and I think the pandemic heightened the need for us to get there sooner. We have now engaged a formal broadband committee to steer those efforts. That was all due to COVID, because it exposed the need for broadband across the communities. We had to have connectivity to be at the forefront. 

 

What does that broadband strategy look like going forward? 

Gwin: We have applied for the NTIA grants and of course a lot of those awards are not going to be done until the first week of December. We’re waiting to see what our funding mechanism looks like. We are going to try to build out on our spectrum and our reservation boundaries. 

Everyone’s focused on the middle mile and how do we connect, and a lot of our areas we just do not have fiber in the ground. It’s going to take infrastructure investment and really the tribe is going to look for private-public partnerships after we’ve received wording on some of the funding opportunities. 

It’s also important for attracting those external business partners. We want to attract capital investment, and you have to have broadband connectivity for job creation. That infrastructure has to be in place. 

Connectivity is key not just only to education, but for remote work, and then for elderly for health appointments. Connectivity drives everything from education to health care to work opportunities, so we feel like it has to be one of our top priorities going forward.

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News focusing on Native entrepreneurship, small business development, and the gaming industry. Based in Tulsa, Okla., Oxendine was previously a contributing writer for Native News Online, and his journalism has been featured in the Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, Source Magazine and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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