"It can be frustrating if you don't know what to expect, because it can take more time. On the other hand, it is very enjoyable to see true democracy in action. When you're asked to meet with the tribal council, and the tribal council takes a vote, you're seeing democracy in action. It is cool, and it's fun."
That comment sums up Brad Gabel's feelings about his years of work with Native American tribes and communities in the Western United States. Brad, a vice president of Phoenix-based Kitchell Contractors, started the company's Native American Division in the late '90s, and he now serves as the division manager. He started the division because he saw an opportunity for Kitchell to offer Indian communities a higher level of service.
"We were not seeing anyone applying the commitment and resources to that market that we thought we could deliver," says Gabel. "We made the commitment and dedicated the resources. We built a division with 30 people who — for the most part — work strictly with Native American groups."
The recently completed Valley View Casino in Escondido, Calif. Casino construction marks the biggest share of work done for Native American tribes and communities. Photos courtesy Kitchell Contractors
Gabel recognized from the beginning that there is a significant cultural divide between most tribal groups and construction firms like Kitchell. His division's mission was to bridge that divide and learn to operate on each tribe's home field, and play by their rules. "One thing we learned early on," Gabel states, "is that we're dealing with different cultures. Those cultures vary by tribe or community, depending upon how deep into their culture they are. Some tribes are very deep into their culture and religion and language, and others less so. We need to know that in order to deliver the service they deserve."
Gabel also realized that he was not totally familiar with all the innuendos of tribal societies, since he was born and raised in Illinois. Likewise, most of his employees were not from Indian communities, and he realized that they would also be unfamiliar. So he hired Jeff Begay and other Native Americans who are familiar with the various cultural and traditional differences. It was with their input that cultural sensitivity classes were initiated to educate further the non-Indian employees.
According to Gabel, the decision-making process is one of the key differences his people have accepted and come to enjoy. "In the corporate construction industry, you'd typically be dealing with a developer who has a project manager who makes all the decisions," he says. "Obviously, he reports back to someone else, but in that situation we have a single point of contact.
"When you're dealing with a Native American tribe or community, there is usually a committee or group that we address for a project. It may be an enterprise board, a gaming board or a school board. There are multiple points of contact, and that's who we deal with. Decisions are made by a group. Sometimes, if it's a big project, it's made by the entire tribe. They vote on it."
Naturally, that's a much slower process. That's what Gabel alludes to when he notes it can be frustrating to a contractor who doesn't know what to expect. For Gabel though, any slight frustration is easily outweighed by the exhilaration of being so deeply involved in a process that is so vital to those he's working with. There's a tremendous sense of accomplishment for an entire community when a project is completed, and Gabel's people get to share in that. "We're actually helping them build their nation," says Gabel.
"The most fun we get is from building something like the school we finished last year for Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in Northern Arizona," says Gabel. "It's the first time those kids have ever had an indoor gym. All these years, they'd been playing basketball outside with the wind blowing the ball away. There was a level of appreciation to us for getting the job done and within their budget.
"The name Kitchell means something to those people up on First Mesa and Second Mesa. Our people go up there and they are really appreciated. It's a huge reward, and it's completely different from working for a developer in downtown Phoenix where it's just a money deal. 'Thanks. Here's your money. Now I'm going to go build another project, and I'll call you.'"
What does Gabel mean when he says Kitchell's Native American Division's mission is to deliver a higher level of service? Gabel explains with a typical scenario. "First of all," he emphasizes, "we don't do any competitive bid work. One hundred percent of this division's work is done on a negotiated basis. We get involved in a project in the design phase. We offer preconstruction services that culminate with a guaranteed maximum price.
"It's a very inclusive process. It draws our client into the decision-making process. They know the cost of decisions that they're making early on, and we don't get ourselves into that adversarial competitive bid process after the fact."
Gabel continues the explanation, saying "As soon as we can, we give the owner a drawing or maybe just a written description of what they want to build. Based on that, we can tell them this is approximately the cost of the project. For example, we would say, 'Based on what you've told us, we think this looks like a $10-million project.' If they have $10 million, that's great. If not, we can work with them to try to bring their expectations to within their funding.
"We move forward from there, but we continue to check that estimate. As the drawings get more and more developed, we can give them a tighter estimate. There are a number of check points along the way.
"Eventually, we can give them a guaranteed maximum price. At that point, I am at risk for that price. I've committed Kitchell's Native American Division to deliver the project within a certain schedule and at a certain price."
Gabel credits his division's success with tribes and Indian communities in Arizona, New Mexico and California to Kitchell's genuine long-term commitment. He's not concerned other companies might take his formula and set up competitive divisions within their companies. "It's not just a matter of creating a new group and giving it a name," he explains. "You have to live it. You have to be passionate about delivering the quality of service the way we provide it and with the cultural sensitivity we provide. If you're just seeing an opportunity to make some money, it won't work."
To back up his point, Gabel notes that the Native American Division is actively taking steps to create competitors within the market. Those efforts include scholarships and other incentives to draw more Native Americans into the construction industry and mentoring work to help tribes develop businesses and expertise that will be able to do work currently being done by Kitchell.
"Our goal has been to bring enough Native Americans into this industry that the communities have their own infrastructure in place, so they don't need to reach outside and hire a contractor like Kitchell. We're working with local universities to establish scholarship programs for Native Americans who want to get into the construction industry.
"We are currently assisting one tribe to open its own construction company. We built a project for them, and now they've come back and said 'we want to start our own company.' They are already doing some work, and we're giving them guidance.
"In some ways, we may be putting ourselves out of this business, and that's okay. Right now, it's important for us to give back."
If that time comes, it will likely be a ways down the road. The West has dozens and dozens of tribes and Indian communities. A few have been fortunate enough to capitalize on favorable locations to generate considerable revenue in recent years. In some cases, those communities have already developed the infrastructure, sophistication and financial clout to plan and develop extensive projects on their own. Gabel points to the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale as a sterling example.
But communities like SRPMIC are still the rare exception. There are still remote and isolated tribes like the Hopi who lack the opportune locations and/or have little interest in changing their level of interaction with non-Indian society. There are other tribes that enjoy favorable locations but are simply too small to build from within. They must rely on outsiders for the kind of service Kitchell's Native American Division provides.
What kind of work is the Native American Division doing? In 2004, the division completed the previously mentioned First Mesa Elementary School for the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona. It's the first school in Arizona to qualify for LEED Certification, and it was the first Kitchell project to earn that recognition.
Naturally, the bulk of the division's work centers around gaming. Gabel says Kitchell builds its share of casino/resort projects from the ground up, and the company has also found a niche remodeling and expanding existing casino operations. In 2007, the division completed extensive expansions to casino properties in Tucson, Ariz., and Escondido, Calif.
Expansion projects on existing casinos require very careful planning. The construction work absolutely must not drive customers away from the casino, so the work has to be as non-intrusive as possible. Gabel notes that on the Valley View Casino near Escondido, they were working on all four sides of the existing casino. When that work was completed, the casino moved its operations into the new areas, and Kitchell went in and remodeled the old part. "Even as we worked, the casino's revenues went up to record levels," Gabel says.
A big project currently in the early stages is a massive casino/resort complex for a tribe in Northern California. As is often the case, the tribe started out a few years ago with a tent casino. That casino's success has made it possible for the tribe to move forward on an ambitious development that will serve as a destination resort.
Stories like that of success and prosperity bring Gabel back to his comment about the gratification and personal satisfaction that comes from his division's work. "A few years ago," he says, "we built a casino for a very poor tribe in California. Now they're the biggest employer in that county. It's an honor to be a part of that. It's a huge deal and very gratifying. It's exciting to be an integral part of their nation-building process."