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Ute Mountain Ute Tribe awarded $2.9 million for first phase of new grocery store

This architectural rendering depicts a new grocery store and economic development center planned for Towaoc north of the Ute Mountain Casino. (Courtesy Reinen Consulting)
Federal funding is part of the American Rescue Plan; new grocery will remedy Towaoc food desert

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has been awarded a $2.9 million grant from the Economic Development Administration to build the first phase of a new grocery store in Towaoc.

The grant award supports the Tribe’s Food Entrepreneurs Economic Development project and is funded by the American Rescue Plan’s Indigenous Communities Program.

The 2,100-member tribe is in a “food desert” without convenient access to healthy food choices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats, said Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart. The nearest grocery stores are 15 miles away in Cortez.

The goal of FEED is to build the tribe’s first grocery store north of the Ute Mountain Casino and powwow grounds on U.S. Highway 491. It will be constructed in two phases.

Phase 1 of the grocery store project funded by the EAD grant will entail setting up a series of 10 to 12 shipping containers into a market, said Ute Mountain Tribe Planner Bernadette Cuthair.

The daily market will sell vegetables, meats, bakery goods, non-perishables, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, and other products for day-to-day living. Heather McDaniels of Horrocks Consulting is the project manager for FEED.

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The second phase of the project would construct a permanent building for grocery store and an economic development center at the same location.

Phase 1 of the shipping-container grocery market is funded and is scheduled to be implemented, Cuthair said.

Construction is planned for summer 2023, with completion by late fall. It will create 20 to 30 new jobs with a preference for tribal members, Cuthair said. One of the shipping containers will be dedicated to economic and entrepreneurship programs.

Permanent grocery building is goal

Phase 2 of the project will be construction of the permanent building for the grocery store and economic development center. The cost is estimated at $12 million, and $2 million has been secured, Cuthair said.

A capital campaign is underway to raise the $10 million needed for the project, with a goal to reach the amount by 2024.

Once the fundraising is successful, construction of the permanent grocery store and economic development center would begin in 2024, with the goal of completion and grand opening in 2025. The shipping containers from Phase 1 will be incorporated into the final project.

Reinen Consulting has been working on the project’s architectural designs.

Grocery stocks will come from established distribution networks in the region. It also will include food raised on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operations.

The new grocery and business center has created a lot of buzz in the community, Cuthair said.

“People are excited to have a local food source and not always have to drive to Cortez,” she said. “It also speaks to our sovereignty as a tribe to develop our own destiny and provide services for the people.”

During the pandemic, shortages of food and basic supplies were especially a concern because of the risks of traveling and low stock in stores, Cuthair said.

Cuthair said a preliminary plan is in the works to build a greenhouse at the tribal farm to grow vegetables year round for the store.

“It is especially gratifying to have our own food source, that security is really important,” she said. “The project has been a heavy lift, very time consuming and detail orientated. We’re making sure everything falls into place so we can have a tangible result that serves the people. That’s what motivates me.”

The convenience of a local grocery is also anticipated.

“We need a lot of food and supplies during our Sun Dance and Bear Dance festivals. To be able to buy that in Towaoc instead of driving is a big benefit,” Cuthair said.

Planning for the project has been a community effort. A grocery store steering committee is composed of youth leaders, elders and program managers.

Organizers and the community “have worked tirelessly for two years to make this vision a reality,” Heart said in a news release. “I’m really proud of our members, leaders and partners for their commitment to provide workforce job training and entrepreneurship support for food industry businesses, while creating access to healthy food for the community.”

The grocery project evolved into a partnership between the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Colorado and the U.S. government, which saw how the coronavirus crisis highlighted the need for improved services on Native American reservations.

“President Biden is committed to supporting tribal communities in their recovery from the coronavirus pandemic,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in the news release. “This EDA investment will support growth of existing food-related businesses, attracting private investment and diversifying the regional economy.”

Tribes were disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic added Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Y. Castillo.

“This EDA investment will develop a workforce training program to support new and existing food businesses, creating jobs in the community,” he said.

Elected officials also support the initiative for food sovereignty for tribes.

“Restaurants and other food businesses are community centers, job creators, and economic drivers,” said U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, of Colorado. “This funding from the American Rescue Plan will help entrepreneurs in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe grow their businesses and recover from the pandemic.”