On October 2011, Phyllis J. Anderson took over as the first woman in history to serve as chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Neshoba County. It was a turbulent time with controversy over some of the tribe’s gaming operations, and an FBI raid that was followed by the resignation of the Price Waterhouse Coopers, the financial firm that had been the outside auditor for the Choctaw casinos for a decade.
Anderson promised a new beginning, and has followed through putting a new stamp on the leadership of the tribe that is one of the top 10 largest private employers in the state with 5,500 employees.
Creating jobs and empowering the tribe’s youth are two of her biggest goals.
“We have to equip our young people with the skills to pursue their dreams in the 21st century,” Anderson said. “We must instill a strong work ethic and promote responsibility and accountability. And we must also provide career opportunities on our reservation. We are a sovereign nation and with that status there are job opportunities that are vast and varied. Tribal members can get an education at no expense to them and come back to work as an engineer, teacher, lawyer, golf pro, chef, resort management, or tribal government employee, just to name a few. But we also have to look within ourselves to see where the potential is to grow. That’s what we are doing.”
One example is the recent launch of a new business called Choctaw Produce. Farms are being built in outlying communities and workers hired from their new Tribal Day Labor Program to work the fields, transport the harvest to the plant, pack and process the produce, and distribute.
“We have also created a new Tribal Advocacy Program at the Pearl River Resort to give tribal member employees a resource to express concerns and needs they have on the job,” Anderson said.
“When I first started this job as tribal chief, I knew there would be a lot of change that needed to occur. Eliminating the barriers that fear, job intimidation and harassment create was one of the first orders of business. I want people to excel in their work environment and know that as long as they are coming to work every day and performing their job duties, there would be nothing to fear.”
They have brought on new management teams at Pearl River Resort, which includes the tribe’s two casinos, and Anderson said they are already seeing such positive changes.
“Our employees are excited and so am I,” Anderson said. “We are also in the process of constructing a new Choctaw Health Center. It’s something our people have been waiting a very long time for. The current facility was built in 1976 to service a tribal population of 4,000; now our tribal population is over 10,000 and we simply must build a new facility to accommodate the expanding needs of our tribal members.
Gaming revenues have been down across the country, and the Choctaws Golden Moon and Silver Star casinos have not escaped the downturn.
“The economy has been hard on anyone who owns a business,” Anderson said. “But we are making adjustments to account for the slow-down and overall tribal gaming is doing okay nationwide. Locally, we have been able to cut resort expenses significantly and streamline operations to make them more cost effective. We are exploring new growth opportunities for the resort in both the gaming and non-gaming arenas. I am very optimistic about the feedback we are receiving from our customers and I know we are headed in a good direction.”
The tribe is also working with potential partners to recruit new business to the reservation. Anderson said right now their main focus is to create a stable government and to show potential partners that they are a good investment.
Cultural tourism also holds great promise. Anderson said there are many people in Mississippi who know little about the Choctaws.
“I feel there is not enough or even a truly accurate depiction of the Mississippi Choctaws that is taught in the state public schools,” she said. “We are in the development phase of a cultural attraction with our mother mound, Nanih Waiya. We are also opening a new Cultural Center on the Choctaw Reservation where visitors from all over the world can learn the tribe’s story and experience the Choctaw way of life. Beyond that we are scheduling new attractions at our Pearl River Resort and gearing up for our summertime months. Of course, we still have perennial spring and summertime favorites with our Dancing Rabbit Golf Club and Geyser Falls Water Theme Park.”
The Choctaws had their credit rating downgraded after the FBI investigation, and refinanced. Anderson said the tribe did not have to refinance because of a credit downgrade or FBI investigation, but rather because the resort’s note was coming due and it was an opportunity to strengthen their financial stability through negotiations for a better refinance package.
“Our new agreement is for $78 million at a variable 6 percent rate with a term length of five years,” Anderson said. “These are excellent terms, and I appreciate everyone involved in the work on this refinance deal. We were able to complete this within the first 100 days of office, and I am so please we made this happen for the benefit of the resort and Choctaw people.
Regarding the FBI investigation, as you can imagine this is a complicated and involved case. These things take a good amount of time. The U.S. attorney is keeping us abreast of their continuing efforts, and all I can tell you at this point is the investigation is still ongoing.”
Helping tribal members become successful entrepreneurs is another economic development plank. The Choctaw Entrepreneurial Loan Fund that provides loans of up to $200,000 to tribal members, and there are formal partnerships with two commercial banks that will provide matching loan funds to qualified borrowers. This program has provided more than $1.5 million in loans to tribal members.
“We have also established the Small Business Development Center which offers technical assistance to tribal members that are interested in starting their own business,” Anderson said. “This program helps potential entrepreneurs develop their business plans, and is normally the first step to seeking a loan.
“Finally, we actively recruit tribal members to launch businesses that will improve the quality of life on the Reservation. For example, we recently helped a tribal member open a convenience store and laundry facility in one of the tribe’s remote communities. This is a great way to improve our communities through promoting entrepreneurship.”
The tribe’s manufacturing operations on the reservation include Chahta Enterprise, which operates professional laundry services and wire harness production in Carthage. Applied Geo Technologies does kiting and electronic assembly work primarily for defense contractors.
Non-Indian manufacturing companies that have chosen to locate on the reservation include Real-Time Laboratories, which manufactures climate control systems and KemPosits, LLC, which produces a walk-in bathtub product.
“We continue to pursue an aggressive strategy to increase the manufacturing jobs available on the Reservation,” Anderson said. “We have several projects under way that should lead to more manufacturing jobs within the next 12 months.”
The Tribe relocated First American Printing & Direct Mail from a large facility in Ocean Springs to the reservation in the spring of 2011. Anderson said while the intent was to create more jobs, did not materialize as hoped.
“The commercial printing industry has been steadily declining for several years due to significant improvements in desktop publishing software and major digital copying,” she said. “First American has downsized, but is still in business.”
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