Fort Pierre wants to be paid for road, utilities work
Fort Pierre City Council members want to see what they can do about collecting what the city is owed for installing infrastructure at the unfinished, vacant Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place on state Highway 1806.
That was one topic Monday at a regular city meeting at which the council reviewed a financial report from 2014 that otherwise looked favorable. Total city revenues came in at $9,294,604 and total expenditures at $7,394,455, an excess of $1,900,149.
But when city council members asked city finance officer Roxanne Heezen about accounts receivable, they learned that the city is owed almost $80,000 for making roadway improvements and installing utilities at Wakpa Sica – work that finished years ago and was to be paid for by special assessments that kicked in starting in 2007.
Heezen, contacted later by the Capital Journal, said the amount that is delinquent as of Dec. 31, 2014, for work at Wakpa Sica is $76,405. In addition, scheduled payments totaling $38,202 could become delinquent in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The payment due this year alone is $12,734. If nothing is paid over the next three years, the total owed the city in principal alone will be $114,607.
The first and only payment made to the city for the road and utilities work at Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place was in 2008.
Ward III Alderman Randy Seiler thinks the city ought to do what it can to get the money that it is owed for those improvements. Seiler, an attorney, made that point to the city council on Monday and explained his thought in more detail later to the Capital Journal.
“I think we need to look at our collection options,” Seiler said. “We need to look at legal ownership of the land, legal ownership of the assets, what assets are available. There’s a process through the court system.”
However, Seiler noted, if Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place has been converted to trust land – that is, federal land that is held in trust for the tribes – then the process becomes more difficult.
What it is
It is trust land, according to Scott Jones, who was one of the Lower Brule Tribe’s tribal outreach consultants who worked with the project as it was first being organized. Jones said a 12-acre site, by act of Congress, has been designated as trust land.
Documents posted online in preparation for an organizational meeting in January 2002 describe an appropriation for that year by Congress of $1.75 million for the planning, design and construction of Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place through a Department of Housing and Urban Development program. Congress authorized construction in December 2000.
Congress and President Bush subsequently approved $2.67 million for continued construction of Wakpa Sica in 2003; then $1.4 million in 2004.
The facility is described in those documents as intended to serve as a “tribal gathering place” to house the Sioux Nation Judicial Support Center and the Sioux National Economic Development Council. It’s also intended as a site to display and interpret tribal history, culture and art.
The document talks about the center providing cultural, legal and economic development services for 11 tribes throughout the Sioux Nation and beyond.
Russell Eagle Bear, a former tribal council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who previously served on the board for the Wakpa Sica project, said the project – which grew out of the reconciliation push that began during the era when George S. Mickelson was South Dakota’s governor – was meant as a showcase for tribal culture.
In all, the project was supposed to cost $22 million and be finished in 2010. But the federal funds dried up before then. Some in Indian country say that’s partly because former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat who championed the project as an economic development tool for tribes, lost his Senate seat to John Thune, a Republican, in 2004. The Capital Journal was unable to verify late Wednesday how much money had been sunk into the project before the funding ceased.
Though the site is vacant now, and construction incomplete, Eagle Bear said he views the shutdown as temporary.
“We’ve just got to kind of regroup,” Eagle Bear said. “We as tribes need to reorganize and come up with a plan of action.”
Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson said Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place has “a gorgeous design,” and said there’s dismay in the area at the thought that such a stunning architectural showpiece might continue to sit idle and unfinished.
“It would make everyone in Fort Pierre very happy if there were some purpose for it,” said Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson. “There would be no better news than to hear that there was a plan to pick up and move forward.”
Dan Feidt, an architect and partner with Great Horse Group, the architectural firm that designed Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, said the firm, too, would like to see the building completed. Though the firm has been paid in full for its work, Feidt said, the building is intended to show an eagle, with two spread wings and a beak. But only one of the wings is complete, he said. The other wing and the beak, intended to complete that powerful symbol of Plains Indian culture, were never built.
“It’s one of those great unfinished projects we’d like to see done,” he said. “Dennis Sun Rhodes, my partner, is Northern Arapaho and has spent a lot of his career doing cultural work for Native American tribes.”
‘Nothing like it in the world’
Feidt said last he had heard, the tribes were hoping to secure more federal funding to push the building through to completion.
News stories in recent years from Indian country make it clear that there was talk during the early years of the Obama administration of applying for stimulus funds to help push the project forward. But already by that time the facility – once spoken of as possibly employing 200 people – was sitting idle.
Scott Jones, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe consultant who was part of the team that helped put the project together early on, said that’s still the hitch – a lack of funds.
“The plan is still in place, but economic reality hit,” said Jones. “The tribes need money to do it, to finish it.”
But he added that the idea of Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place is sound.
“I think it could be one of the best things Indian county and South Dakota have ever seen,” Jones said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”