Reprinted from the April 2019 edition of Cedar Valley Business Monthly.
TAMA — Just west of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel on U.S. Highway 30 is a place to get some food and refuel your vehicle.
But the Meskwaki Travel Plaza isn’t just a convenient stop for passersby and truck drivers. It’s at the center of an effort to build economic diversity for the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, also known as the Meskwaki Nation.
Opened in 2015, the travel plaza replaced the Meskwaki Trading Post, a smaller gas station that had been located across the street. The new facility offered “more pumps, more (square) footage inside the store, more products,” said Mike Canning, vice president of finance for Meskwaki, Inc. The travel plaza is one of several subsidiaries of the company, a tribal corporation wholly owned by the Meskwakis.
Brendan Wanatee, general manager of the business, said it includes a number of amenities targeted at truck drivers: a truckers’ lounge, showers, laundry facilities, a certified scale to weigh loads and more. It also features the Route 30 Sub Shop, a quick dining option.
“We didn’t have big places for trucks to park,” he said, at the former station across the street. The travel plaza is “definitely catering to the big trucker market.”
A significant amount of its business, though, is still thanks to the nearby casino — the Meskwaki Nation’s best known venture.
“What we found looking at our fuel sales is more than half come from the casino (patrons). We don’t want to rely too heavily on the casino,” said Wanatee.
That’s generally the idea behind Meskwaki, Inc. The corporation was formed four years ago — around the same time the travel plaza opened. It was designed to foster greater economic development within the 8,100-acre tribal settlement.
“There’s two primary benefits to the community,” said Canning. “The first is diversifying the tribe’s businesses and business income so it’s not just the casino.” The second is to “provide employment opportunities to tribal members” through Meskwaki, Inc. and its subsidiaries.
Indeed, said Canning, “it’s increased employment opportunities for people who are members of the tribe.” As of January, 75 percent of those working for its companies are part of the Meskwaki community.
The initial opening of the travel plaza held some of the promise for more job possibilities. Wanatee said it employs 40 people, most in full-time jobs that include benefits, with hiring preferences given to tribal members and their descendants.
However, “the value of the travel plaza, it extends beyond the facility itself,” said Canning. “What the travel plaza allowed us to do is integrate vertically.”
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That vertical integration is where Meskwaki Fuels and Big River Trading Co. — other subsidiaries of Meskwaki, Inc. — come in.
When the travel plaza initially opened, the new facility had a branding relationship with a fuel supplier, as had the former gas station. In the summer of 2016, though, that changed. The business became an independent truck stop with the newly formed Meskwaki Fuels as its supplier.
“We’re buying (gasoline) at the fuel terminal in Omaha, where wholesalers buy fuel,” said Canning. So, “rather than buying from some wholesaler out of Des Moines” the company is creating other revenue streams and job opportunities for the tribe.
That increased revenue and employment is the idea, as well, with Native Brandz and Renards Manufacturing products distributed by Big River Trading Co.
After filling up their gas tanks, people can find a variety of food and other items in the store produced by Native Brandz — Meskwaki Cattail Creek Coffee freshly brewed or by the bag, Meskwaki Warrior sauces and spices, wild rice, jam, jelly and tribal-patterned fleece blankets. Down the hall in the Trucker’s Lounge Smoke Shop are Renards tobacco and Outagami vaping products.
“A lot of the focus we want to start doing is increasing traffic, getting (customers) in here to buy something else,” said Wanatee, of ongoing efforts to better market all the products. But at this point, sales show a clear winner among the items bought inside.
“The most high-value product Big River Trading sells is cigarettes,” said Canning.
Neither the Renards or Native Brandz products are actually manufactured by the tribe at the Meskwaki settlement at this point.
“We contract the manufacturing out, we don’t have our own manufacturing facilities yet,” said Canning. “We’re exploring that option.”
If tobacco products ever are manufactured by the tribe “we have a facility we could put that operation into,” he noted. “We haven’t decided to buy all the equipment yet. We’re in the middle of evaluating that right now.”
Meskwaki, Inc. is also looking beyond product manufacturing as it considers more diversification possibilities for the company.
“Our focus is always on keeping the travel plaza healthy, but our next big endeavor is to get into federal contracting,” explained Canning. The corporation is applying for minority-owned business status, which would give it preference in federal contract bidding.
“It covers a gamut of possibilities, we haven’t necessarily chosen what kind of contracting we’d get into,” he said. “That’s a big effort that we’re in the middle of now.”