The beating of tribal drums wafted through the rain in Warm Springs on Monday morning.
A crowd of around 30 people braved the elements to make it to a gathering at the old commissary building, which sat suspended on a few sets of wheels.
It was moving day.
“This building is 126 years old with a long history, some of which may not be pleasant to tribal members,” said Chris Watson, Executive Director of the Warm Springs Community Action Team (WSCAT).
“It’s our hope that taking back the building, moving it to a new location, and giving tribal members control will inspire hope and change in the community.”
Moving the commissary building from its original location off of Federal Pl. and into a new spot just a couple of blocks away on Wasco St. was the first step to a plan many years in the making, to turn it into a center for small businesses and community connection.
The Tribal Council granted the nonprofit the lease on the commissary in 2017, but the project was postponed due to the pandemic.
According to Carina Miller, former Tribal Council member and current WSCAT team member, the delay allowed them time to be more thoughtful with the design and gain feedback from the community.
“I think people are excited because they’ve been informed all along on what’s happening…what the barriers are, why things are being held up. And ultimately, [they] are going to have a say on what goes in there,” she said.
The current plan entails a three-stage process, and the first stage will see the upstairs section turned into a resource center for small businesses.
“Upstairs is going to be a shared working space, and basically a location where we can help support the small business individuals or people who want to start building their business, or have an office space or a desk,” said Starla Green, the manager of the project.
There will also be business and financial classes available to help individuals start a business ‘from ground zero.’
Phase I will also see the downstairs portion transformed into storefronts for local crafters and other various small businesses, and Painted Pony Deli and Espresso will join the mix as an attachment to the building.
During Phase II, they will add an outdoor food pavilion, spaces for food carts, and even a stage. Green said they hope to host Saturday markets in that space.
Phase III will include a commercial kitchen to help sustain the deli and food carts, as well as food education projects in the area.
They also plan to install solar panels, with the goal of making it the first net zero energy building on the reservation.
Watson said he hopes the location along Hwy 26 will serve as a gateway to Central Oregon for those traveling from the Portland area, and an economic boost for locals.
“There’s only 12 retail businesses on the Warm Springs Reservation right now, and once this gets up and running it’ll add four or five more retail shops, and then the food carts and the food-based businesses will add four or five more,” he said. “So in a few years, this project could double the number of retail shops in Warm Springs.
“Right now, the reservation has about a 90% rate of retail leakage, which means that $9 out of every $10 the people spend are spent in Madras or Redmond or Bend or in the Portland direction.
“This is the first of many projects in downtown Warm Springs where we hope to create a situation where there are businesses in Warm Springs, and people can spend their money here rather than in the other communities.”
Watson believes the new commissary will create around 25 jobs to start, and more when part-time jobs are made available through the food businesses.
The 5,000 sq. ft. structure is one of the oldest on the reservation, built in 1896 by the federal government.
Miller said the commissary was once used as a means to assimilate the local tribe into the ‘modern world.’
“Originally, this area that we now call ‘agency’ was created for the Bureau of Indian Affairs employees to be able to live on the reservation and carry out a lot of the federal policy for kind of colonizing the tribes,” she said.
“That’s what this commissary building was originally used for…it was one of the buildings over 100 years ago that was used for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be able to give out grain and agricultural tools, and help us transition from more traditional ways of life into more ‘modern’ ways of living.”
WSCAT Board Member Pinky Beymer, who came to witness the building’s move, had family memories associated with it.
“I remember my folks telling me that my grandparents used to bring their products down from their ranch with their team of horses and their wagon and unload and load here and get supplies,” she said.
Everyone who Central Oregon Daily News spoke to on Monday was glad to see the building renewed to serve the community it once controlled.
“We saw the opportunity to reclaim this building that had originally been used in our colonization and our assimilation, and actually turn it around and make it something that would even, I would say, help de-colonize our economy,” Miller said.
The building was specifically selected for this project in 2017, when the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed that the majority of the older buildings downtown would be demolished, and the tribe would take control of the land where those buildings had stood.
Most of them were too ruined by lead-based paint and Asbestos to be of any use anymore, but WSCAT decided that the lesser-damaged commissary was worth salvaging.
Removing the existing lead-based paint and Asbestos from the building still cost $50,000, but Watson said it would have likely cost at least three times that much to remove it in the other buildings.
WSCAT Small Business Program Manager Dustin Seyler said the project comes at a crucial point in time for the reservation.
“It’s very much needed here,” he said. “We’ve been suffering really bad economically for quite some time. We lost the mill, we lost the resort. There have been several tribal ventures that have failed, and the people have suffered as a result.”
Seyler said the economic depression has led to many skilled and talented individuals leaving the reservation to seek out better opportunities.
He explained that in many tribal communities, most of the economy is made up of government-run organizations, which prevents development and growth overall.
Developments like the new commissary, he said, is a hopeful sign of the growth they need.
“We’re hoping in the next 20 to 40 years, you’re going to see one building after another begin to pop up, and a really healthy and vibrant downtown community where people from everywhere can come and interact with actual tribal members from the region and develop healthy relationships, and build a really strong future,” he said.
The entire project is grant-funded, and the WSCAT team feels confident they can raise the nearly $2 million still needed to complete their vision.
They are currently applying for federal grants through the USDA, Commerce Department, and the Department of the Interior.
So far, they have received grants from 15 different sources.
Some of their largest contributors have been $250,000 from Business Oregon’s Regional Infrastructure Fund, $200,000 from Meyer Memorial Trust, and $125,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation.
They hope to fully complete the Warm Springs Commissary project in 2023.
For more information about the details of the project, visit https://warmspringscommissary.org.