New tribal stores are popular
Though it's only been open for a month, White Earth's new convenience store, deli, gas station and coin laundry, known as the White Earth Community Service Center, is already exceeding expectations.
"Business has been really good," says owner Darwin "Darb" McArthur, who operated a convenience store in Ogema for 22 years before opening the White Earth store last month.
McArthur is leasing the land and building from the White Earth Investment Initiative, an entity of the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation.
The Investment Initiative itself is leasing the land from the White Earth Tribal Council (the land cannot be sold, because it is held in trust), under a 25-year lease -- "with an option to renew for another 25 years," said MMCDC President Arlen Kangas.
But after that initial 25-year lease expires, McArthur will have the option of buying out the Investment Initiative's interest. He already owns all the equipment -- including coolers, washers, dryers, gas pumps, kitchen equipment and of course, the c-store's inventory of commercial goods, including food, health and beauty and paper products.
"I had to buy everything but the building," McArthur said (some of it was brought over from his other convenience store in Ogema, which was closed when he opened the White Earth store).
Though all aspects of the business are doing well, McArthur is particularly pleased with the deli, which is usually packed during the lunch hour.
"They're still lined up around the corner for lunch every (week) day," he said, though business slows down a bit on weekends.
"You can come by here almost any time of day and see people at the pump," added Gus Bevins, who is the local representative on the White Earth Tribal Council. "It's become a gathering place."
In fact, business is doing so well that McArthur is already looking at adding a second till, to help speed up service during busy periods.
"It's busier than it was in Ogema," he said, but added part of this was due to the fact that the new store has a greater variety of food available in its deli.
"We have pizzas, hamburgers, soups, subs (made fresh at the grocery store in Ogema, which McArthur also owns), chicken strips, fries..."
Customers Ed Dakota, of White Earth, and Leonard Smith, of Ponsford, both said the store was a great addition to the community.
"I eat here pretty much every day," Smith said, "or I buy stuff to cook up at home."
"The food is good," Dakota agreed, noting that he, like Smith, has become a regular customer.
"This store has been a blessing," Bevins said. "It's a big thing for White Earth -- the community has accepted it with open arms."
The White Earth store, along with a similar store in Pine Point, was built through the White Earth Investment Initiative, which purchased a 25-year lease on the land, held in trust by the White Earth Tribal Council.
In addition to the c-store, gas pumps and coin laundry, the facility also has a three-bedroom apartment in back, where McArthur lives.
The three-in-one facility was developed to meet the needs of the White Earth community, as laid out in a meeting with MMCDC officials approximately three years ago.
"At that meeting, we came up with a list of things the community needed most," said Kangas.
The highest items on that list were a convenience store and a Laundromat. So a plan was developed to combine the two enterprises into a single store.
Tom Klyve, who serves as MMCDC's vice president of business development as well as CEO of the Investment Initiative, had several years of experience as a c-store owner and operator. He brought that expertise to the development of the project.
A marketing study was done by an independent firm based in Oklahoma City, to analyze potential c-store locations.
"We had them analyze a number of sites for traffic flow, housing and other factors that could impact sales," Klyve said.
"They looked at five sites, and we selected the two best -- White Earth village was one, and Pine Point was the other," Kangas said.
In fact, Klyve noted, the need for the Pine Point store was greater than the White Earth one, as residents previously had to drive more than 20 miles to the nearest gas station.
Each of the buildings was constructed with 2,400 square feet of space for the convenience store, 900 square feet for the Laundromat, and 1,800 square feet for the residence, Klyve noted.
"Though they've only been opened for about a month (the Pine Point store actually opened a little earlier), the stores in general have done better than expected," Klyve said.
If the businesses in Pine Point and White Earth prove successful, additional stores may be developed in other reservation communities.
"The cost of development is significant," Kangas noted. "We need a market big enough to support the capital costs."
The White Earth Community Service Center is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
McArthur said he is looking at extending the store's hours until 10 p.m. during the summer months.
A grand opening for the White Earth store is being planned for Friday, April 21, at 1 p.m. Speakers will include Kangas and White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor.