- Associated Press - Monday, January 25, 2016

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) - When Martin Pilcher was a boy growing up in the New Crazy Horse community a couple miles south of the reservation on the road to Whiteclay, Nebraska, he and his young friends would do their best to avoid Highway 407.

Whether on horseback or on foot, the youngsters were leery of the roadway, and would reluctantly sneak across the tarmac only to reach the cool creek on the other side.

“We would stay away from it as much as possible,” Pilcher told the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/20hDbpI ). “So many people drove to Whiteclay to get beer and there were a lot of accidents on that road. So many died on that highway. We had to walk across it to get to the creek, but we would really hustle.”

Not much has changed in Whiteclay.

Even today, its dozen residents and four liquor stores sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer each day, quenching the thirst of many residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, among others. Despite an August 2013 vote that set aside a 124-year ban on alcohol sales, in large measure the reservation remains dry, keeping Whiteclay in tall cotton when it comes to beer sales.

But the town’s newest entrepreneur and, by some accounts, possibly Whiteclay’s first Native American business owner, isn’t planning to add to the problems of local residents suffering from the scourge of alcoholism. Even if Whiteclay’s four on-sale establishments didn’t hold all the available licenses, which they do, Pilcher, the proud new owner of Arrowhead Foods, said he’d probably forego selling any type of booze purely on principle.

“It’ a grocery store, not a bar,” said the 43-year-old father of four. “I’m more family-oriented and family-driven.”

Pilcher bought the 3,000-square-foot store in December with the help of an alliance of two tribal organizations and a Gordon, Nebraska, bank. Since then, he says he’s worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. nearly every day, figuring orders, managing inventory, handling paperwork, stocking shelves, monitoring eight employees and otherwise learning the fine art of the grocery business.

“We cook a lot of chicken and we even cater,” said Pilcher. “I think the tribe and our people have been pretty supportive and we’ve been really busy. We get a lot of compliments.”

Pilcher is no stranger to hard work. He and Rhiannon, his wife of 16 years, have owned and operated Pine Ridge Builders for three years, and Pilcher earned his license as an insurance agent a couple years ago. Before he turned to a life of contracting, insurance and groceries, Pilcher spent 15 years teaching in the Pine Ridge school system.

Although he said he never really contemplated being the lone Native-owned business in Whiteclay, Pilcher estimated 95 percent of his customers were Native Americans.

“I don’t know if it’s important to my people,” he said. “But in the past, Whiteclay has been all about beer sales and people on the street, the only real picture that the world gets to see. They don’t see the good things that are happening in Whiteclay. It’s not all beer and drunks.”

While others saw only the hopelessness of social ills painted on the faces of those huddled up in Whiteclay’s abandoned buildings or asleep on its streets, Pilcher saw an opportunity for community revitalization. He pointed to the town’s other stores, an auto dealership and repair shop, and a new multimillion-dollar nursing home being built by the Ogalala Sioux Tribe as evidence of a vibrant community growing ever more secure in its future.

But Pilcher said he could not have realized his entrepreneurial dream without the help of three organizations that financed his purchase of Arrowhead Foods.

He initially approached the Lakota Fund, a Native community development financial institution located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, to obtain capital that would transform his vision into a successful business. As an organization that had provided more than $6 million in financing to hundreds of businesses since 1986, Lakota Fund was well-versed in navigating the risks associated with lending in very low-income communities.

However, Pilcher’s request for $300,000 to purchase the commercial building in Whiteclay topped out the fund’s loan limit. Undeterred, Lakota Fund Executive Director Tawney Brunsch and Loan Officer Tony Taylor approached Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial, a Native finance group located in Pine Ridge that provides housing loans. Mazaska subsequently agreed to partner in a participation loan for the deal on the Whiteclay building, which included a five-bedroom residence behind the store.

With two of the three pieces of the loan puzzle in place, Taylor said Pilcher needed only a line of credit to purchase his initial inventory, something required by the food distributor with whom Pilcher had contracted. After several months of work, a prospective lender backed out at the last minute, jeopardizing the project, Taylor said.

“We really scrambled for that final piece of the puzzle,” said Taylor. When the potential lender rejected the deal, Taylor said he immediately thought of The First National Bank in Gordon, with which he had worked on other projects.

“I suggested to Martin that he might want to try First National, and within 15 minutes he had contacted their loan officer,” said Taylor. “They approved it within 10 minutes. The next day or the following day he had the line of credit in place. That’s the kind of people they are.”

First National Senior Vice President Valerie Mann dismissed the contention that her bank approved the line of credit on 10 minutes’ notice and said she and her associates had in fact been watching the project develop since its inception.

“We were actually at the beginning of the process and referred Martin to the Lakota Fund,” Mann said. “While it may appear to have been a quick decision, we actually had been keeping a close eye on the transaction.”

Mann said her bank was encouraged by Pilcher’s work ethic, new projects in and around Whiteclay, and a “Buy Native” resolution passed by the Ogalala Sioux Tribe late last year that stated the tribe’s intent to buy from Native-owned vendors whenever possible, a move that “we knew would lead to even more business for Native-owned operations.”

“Whiteclay has a lot of potential and many opportunities, including the new nursing home which will serve elders of the reservation, businesses that are providing housing in Whiteclay for people working in Pine Ridge, great Christian foundations, and several positive things behind the normal sensational headlines associated with Whiteclay,” Mann said.

“It seemed a Native owner of a grocery store that close to Pine Ridge would make a lot of financial sense,” she added. “And Martin had a history of innovation prior to this, with his contracting business and insurance agency. He also has incredible family support and for a small business owner, that’s extremely important.”

With all the pieces in place, Pilcher signed the loan documents Dec. 2 at the Gordon bank, and then took over the store and deli. Taylor said a lesser man, facing such lending hurdles, may have bailed far earlier in the process.

“Martin’s ambitious and he does things right,” Taylor said. “He showed the gumption to get through it.”

While alcoholism and dependency issues in Whiteclay and on the reservation “get all the ink,” Taylor said he remained hopeful that Pilcher’s determination and success would set an example for younger tribal members and change outside perceptions.

“He was the ideal client for the Lakota Fund,” Taylor said. “We’re aware of the negative press about Whiteclay and the reservation in general. But Martin’s character and this Native-owned business have positioned him to be a positive role model.

“This sends a very positive message - a Native-owned store employing tribal members in what is considered a blighted area,” he added.

For his part, Pilcher said if he could motivate even one reservation resident to challenge themselves and understand that they could start a successful small business, all of the effort will have proven worthwhile.

“I want my people to know this is possible,” he said from his store, where a phone was ringing in the background. “We have the power to make our community a better place.”

___

Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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