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Ute Mountain Ute Tribe plans for 2022

Plans for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe rise up for 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Priorities include new grocery store, design of education campus, and economic development

In 2022, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe will focus on economic development, infrastructure improvements, planning for a new education campus, securing historic water rights and a new grocery store.

The first step for shoring up the tribe’s economy is hiring an economic development director, said Bernadette Cuthair, director of Planning and Development for the tribe.

Interviews for the position continue, but priorities this year will include development of a grocery store and trading post in Towaoc and reopening of the Ute Mountain Pottery venue in Cortez, which specializes in Native American artwork.

The tribe is in a “food desert” without convenient access to healthy choices, said Chairman Manuel Heart. The nearest grocery stores are 15 miles away in Cortez.

Developing “food sovereignty for our community is even more essential in this time of the pandemic, where travel is limited for health and safety reasons,” Heart said.

The plan is to build a grocery store on vacant land north of the Ute Mountain Casino off U.S. Highway 491, Cuthair said. It would be north of the powwow grounds.

For the first phase of the project, food stands and storage units would be set up to sell commodities of fruits and vegetables, meats and dried goods. Part of the food inventory could come from the Ute Farm and Ranch.

The second phase would involve construction of a permanent grocery store, expected to cost up to $12 million, Cuthair said. Fundraising through state and federal grants will be sought.

The tribe also announced it has purchased the old Woody’s Convenience Store property on U.S. Highway 491 north of the reservation boundary. The purchase price was not revealed. The store and gas pumps were closed down last year.

The previous owner purchased the property for $360,000 in April 2020, according to the Montezuma County Assessor’s Office.

Plans for the Woody’s property have not been determined, Cuthair said, and will be researched by the new economic development director and Tribal Council.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe includes land in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Efforts will continue to secure tribal water rights in the three states, including on the San Juan River.

On the education front, planning has begun on a new education quadrant south of the education center. New school facilities will stand on the current softball field, which will be moved to the west.

Beginning in the fall, second grade will be added to the new Kwiyagat Community Academy. The tribe hopes to eventually offer K-12 classes in Towaoc.

On the health care front, the new Indian Health Services clinic is nearing completion. The current clinic will undergo a remodel.

The new 5,000-square-foot clinic will house dental and medical services and provide clinic space for patient care. The new building will include three exam rooms, a treatment room and a laboratory. It also will offer four dental procedure rooms, a sterilization area and a small dental lab.

The tribe will seek funding from the American Rescue Plan Infrastructure bill to upgrade utilities in Towaoc and White Mesa, Heart said in the Jan. 3 announcements on the Weenuche Smoke Signals Facebook page.

The tribe also will consider whether to keep or reduce its herd of 28 buffalo on its ranch north of Mancos. The InterTribal Buffalo Council will be consulted for recommendations.

Food distribution

The Tribe plans to give out food Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. at the recreation center parking lot and the administration building in White Mesa, Utah. The food is provided by a grant from the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger. The food distribution is for residents of Towaoc and White Mesa.