Ute settlement money a boom to Cortez economy

Emery Cowan/Durango HeraldRemote-control cars were just one of the items that tribal members purchased after receiving their portion of a $42.6 million settlement this summer. Page Bane, owner of the car sound-system store Audio Box, shows off the cars, which reach speeds comparable to their full-sized counterparts.

Millions of dollars flood local economy

By Emery Cowan

Durango Herald

Lino Padilla switched from phone call to phone call, negotiating new car deals by the minute. Outside strands of red white and blue fringe were strung across the parking lot filled with used cars for sale.

The sales Padilla is making now are nothing compared to a few months ago in July when adult members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe received $12,500 each from the distribution of $42.5 million in federal settlement money.

Padilla sold 17 cars in one day after the settlement money was distributed, he said. The most he usually sells is six or eight.

“I’m the only one that put an ad in the paper and on the radio station thanking the Ute Mountain Ute tribe,” said Padilla, who co-owns 4x4 Auto Sales with his wife Brenda.

Like Padilla, business owners throughout Cortez reported seeing a noticeable uptick in business when Ute Mountain Ute members received their portion of the multimillion-dollar settlement with the Department of the Interior. A total of 41 tribes received money from the $1 billion settlement that resolved numerous lawsuits alleging federal mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands.

The tribe grappled with what to do with the money, considering proposals to invest the money on behalf of the tribe, invest some in tribal programs or distribute the money in designated chunks.

But under pressure by many vocal members, tribal councilors decided to distribute the majority of the money directly to the people. Members received a total of almost $19,000 each in three payments made in May, July and September.

The distribution translated into a major and almost immediate infusion of business into the Cortez community, local business owners said.

Tribal members came straight to his car dealership after receiving their checks, Padilla said. Some simply signed over their checks to him instead of going through the step of cashing them. He organized barbecues, car washes and live radio promotions to advertise his offerings in the days after the settlement distribution.

Restaurants and car accessory shops were some of the other businesses that saw a boom in demand. Rimco saw a huge influx of people looking for new tires and rims, said Chris Alvarez, general manager of the wheel and rim store.

“They are reaching for the stars because they have extra money,” he said.

It had been a slow couple of years at Audiobox until tribal members received their distributions, said Page Bane, owner of the car sound-system store.

Stacks of speaker systems in the middle of the store dwindled, and he had a major backup on work to install sound systems.

“We couldn’t do it quick enough,” he said. “We got a lot of the same customers, just new toys.”

Firearms were also on many tribal members lists.

Shooters World, a firearms and accessories store, saw increases “across the board” when the settlement money was distributed, owner Ken Banks said.

“We felt it like every restaurant, car dealer and ATV dealer,” Banks said.

Younger tribal members who couldn’t buy guns and can’t drive cars opted for something else.

“It seemed like every young person ended up with a four wheeler,” said Dena Guttridge, executive director of the Cortez Chamber of Commerce.

Furniture and appliance rental stores said some customers used the money to pay off their items still on loan.

But the Ute Mountain Ute’s spending spree had its downsides, some tribal members said. Many people quickly spent most of their money and have found themselves in the same cash-strapped situation as before the settlement, one tribal member said.

Business owners confirmed that tribal spending has died down now. Meanwhile, four-wheelers driven by children and teens too young to get a license have proliferated on the reservation, cutting a growing web of dirt roads across the landscape.

“It’s unbelievable,” another tribal member said.

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