A partnership between GROW South Dakota (GROW SD), a NeighborWorks network organization, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, is helping grow businesses in South Dakota. For the past few years, GROW SD has assisted the tribe's economic development arm in helping set up business plans for tribal members. Together, the organizations assisted 20 Native American clients with business technical assistance from October 2021 to September 2023.
"We also have a history of doing small business lending," adds Lori Finnesand, co-CEO of GROW SD, whose organization serves as host of the Small Business Development Center, where residents can get assistance with business planning.
Mark Nelson, a loan officer for GROW SD and consultant for the Small Business Development Center, says the partnership began as more federal dollars became available to tribal members for businesses. But to take advantage of those dollars, the potential businesses needed both a plan and cashflow projections, where GROW SD had additional experience.
"We've had small partnerships off and on with them for years," says Lori Moen, chief operating officer at GROW SD. That made the connection easier.
Nelson says the business collaborations have ranged from those needing $5,000 to more than $1 million in capital. The range of businesses goes from food trucks and artists to service-based businesses. There's also a new home rehab business, helping new homeowners care for their homes long term by installing things like shower fans, assessing home energy efficiency and more.
GROW SD also provides technical assistance classes and homebuyer education classes for the tribe. Leaders say small businesses can generate the income it takes to buy a home. "Any time a small business comes to town, it generates wealth and resources," adds Moen.
The goal of Nelson's division is to set businesses up for long-term success.
William Fish, economic development planner with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, has been working with the tribe on and off since 2006, taking time in between to run his own businesses, including a printing business. He then joined the economic development staff full time. "I was pulled to come back home to work," he explains.
He wants tribal members to be able to grow their businesses at home, too, he says. Some want to work for independent businesses instead of for tribal enterprises, including a nearby plastics manufacturer. For those people, opening a small business has allure.
Fish's organization helps with business plans and with connecting clients to grants, including for existing businesses hurt during the isolation of COVID. (Last year, he says, they connected tribal members with $750,000 in funds.) Other funding – such as gaming revenue from casinos – was earmarked for small businesses. But when COVID cut into the casinos' income, that funding dried up. It has recently reopened, and Fish is excited to help pair more businesses with funds. "We should be able to help 10 to 15 businesses a year, both start-ups and existing," he says. "We're just now catching up."
Fish says his agency began working with GROW SD four years ago. "They were eager to work with us. And it's worked out really well." Sometimes, he says, it can be tricky working with organizations who don't come from a tribal background and may not know the structures of a tribal organization. Tribal regulations and state regulations can often differ. But GROW SD was ready to learn.
Fish says his clients are interested in opening a range of businesses, especially construction and carpentry. "We have so much housing need right now. But we don't have the contractors to build the houses. We don't even have contractors to go out and fix some of the houses that already exist."
Next up is probably tourism, he says, especially for the region at the tip of reservation near Interstate 29. The region is full of lakes and hunting grounds.
Typically, clients come to Fish first. When he needs technical assistance, he sends them to Nelson as well. "Most recently, he worked with a gas station for us," Fish says. "Gas prices are going up and down and we had to figure out retail items like chips and frozen foods and sales tax. He was a great help on that."
Fish also just started assessing a project for a tribal jail – the first to open in several years. Currently, he says, the tribe partners with the county, paying for anyone from the reservation who would have to spend time in the county jail. Currently, the planning and construction management departments are tackling this project on their own, with the hopes of adding 25 new positions. But Fish foresees a time when he will need GROW SD's assistance with financial projections. If they build a multi-million dollar facility, Fish says, he wants to be sure the next generation will not be stuck with that debt.
"Working with GROW South Dakota has been nothing but a pleasure," Fish says, adding that he looks forward to a continuing relationship.
Mel Willie, NeighborWorks America's director of Native Strategy & Partnerships, says, "GROW SD's work in collaboration with the tribe's economic development department, doing small business loans and training, is a unique program because it's helping uplift tribal members and doing it in a way that creates a working partnership. This epitomizes the way an organization should be respectfully working with a tribe, hand in hand."
In 2021 and 2022, NeighborWorks made 21 grants to NeighborWorks network organizations who were engaged in Native partnerships. GROW SD was one of them. The organization's work, Willie says, is the result of creating a trustful and respectful relationship. "Now they can extend various programs and services. It's a true partnership."
For more on Grow SD's work partnering with tribes, read about the organization's work with schools on the Pine Ridge reservation.