You know about the Coquille Indian Tribe’s popular casino and hotel in North Bend. You may also know about the tribe’s timber operation, highly respected for its sustainable harvest and reforestation practices.

But did you know about the tribe’s construction company, currently remodeling a federal courthouse in Denver?

In partnership with a Colorado construction firm, a tribal-owned company won a $12 million contract last year to renovate the Byron White Federal Courthouse. Tribal officials hope the courthouse and similar jobs will be a springboard for a profitable long-term venture, thanks to a federal program that encourages minority-owned companies.

“There have been tribes that have been very successful with this business model,” said Judy Duffy-Metcalf, chief executive officer of CEDCO, the tribe’s economic development arm. “We feel this is a significant opportunity for the tribe, and a great way to develop tribal members as business leaders.”

An imperative to grow

Why a small Oregon tribe is doing business in Denver is a tale of necessity and ingenuity. It starts in 1989, when Congress restored the Coquilles’ previously terminated status as a recognized Indian tribe.

The 1989 Coquille Restoration Act directed the Tribe to pursue self-sufficiency, though how to do that was unclear. Subsequent legislation called for creating a 58,000-acre tribal forest to generate the necessary income, but politics intervened. The 58,000 acres shrank to 5,400 in the final bill — far too little to sustain the Tribe.

Blocked from becoming a forestry powerhouse, the tribe became a hospitality powerhouse instead. The Mill Casino-Hotel & RV Park has turned the tribe into Coos County’s second-largest employer, while pumping more than $5.8 million into charitable organizations since 2001.

But the tribe can’t afford to coast on that success. It needs new revenue — for at least three reasons.

The first reason is population growth. Although the tribe’s constitution prohibits direct “per capita” payments to members, the tribe provides health care, education aid and elder assistance. With the tribal roster of 1,060 members projected to double every 20 years, the tribe needs its revenue to keep up.

Second, even without population growth, costs are rising. The future of health care is anybody’s guess.

The third factor is competition. Pressure has intensified from larger Oregon casinos and the Oregon Lottery. And, since the smaller Three Rivers Casino opened less than 3 miles away, the Coquilles are the only Oregon tribe sharing its hometown market with a competitor. (Even so, Coquille Chairperson Brenda Meade emphasizes that the tribe welcomes Three Rivers to the neighborhood: “It is making us run a better business,” she said.)

Community impact

Though The Mill is the tribe’s economic linchpin, the tribe historically has run a variety of enterprises, including a fiber-optic network, a log-export wharf and a commercial laundry. These provide revenue for tribal government and varied jobs for tribal members.

“Not everyone wants to work at a casino,” Meade explained.

The benefits extend far beyond the tribe.

“We will never have enough tribal members to fill all the positions we are creating,” Meade said. Indeed, nearly 80 percent of employees in tribal ventures are non-members, and a similar percentage applies to tribal contracts for goods and services. That’s a point of pride for Meade.

“That casino doesn’t just benefit the Coquille Indian Tribe,” she said. “Those dollars go to everyone here.”

She notes that all of Oregon’s nine recognized Indian tribes, mostly situated outside the Interstate 5 corridor, enrich the towns where they do business.

“People underestimate what the tribes are bringing to rural Oregon,” she said.

Mentor and protege

Federal contracting, such as the Denver courthouse job, should bring even more benefits to southwestern Oregon. Tribal revenue enters the region’s economy via members clustered in Coos, Curry, Jackson, Lane and Douglas counties. It pays for health care, college tuition, taxes, and a broad range of goods and services.

If the tribe succeeds at federal contracting, the result will be a quiet but substantial infusion into the region’s economy.

The Coquille Tribe’s construction partner is Milender White, a well-established company based in Arvada, Colo. Milender White’s contribution to the partnership is its expertise, reputation and bonding capacity.

In return, CEDCO brings an opportunity to participate in the federal Small Business Administration’s preference program for minority and disadvantaged business owners. Known simply as “8(a),” the program lets Milender White and CEDCO create a “mentor-protégé relationship” in which CEDCO’s executive team learns federal contracting from the bigger company.

CEDCO hopes eventually to outgrow the partnership and prosper on its own. Its strategy? Apply the same attention to detail and customer service that have built The Mill’s reputation for excellence. Duffy-Metcalf said the joint venture’s performance on the Denver courthouse project has been a good start.

“It really brands the tribe in this industry, she said. “The reputation that we’re building bodes well for us.”

If the construction venture thrives, the tribe’s economic footprint could have a much different shape in years to come.

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