One South Sound business niche that not only survived but managed to thrive during the recession has been tribal project expansion.

And, with five Tribes scattered throughout this region alone, that fact has businesses here looking to partner with them on projects across major industries.

“Tribes are independent little governments with a lot of buying power, and they have a lot of needs for work on everything from day care centers to jails and in many more areas,” said Tiffany Scroggs, PTAC program director for the Thurston County Economic Development Council.

“A lot of people are eyeing the Tribes as the next gold rush because they have the impression that with the casinos they’re making everyone rich,” said Lee Anne Burke, tribal liaison and outreach coordinator for Native PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center), the consulting agency for tribal business. “However, that’s not exactly the case. And tribal contracting is certainly not easy.”

The opportunities for contracting in this niche are as differing as in any other industry, ranging from construction of roadwork, educational facilities and office buildings to tech and aquaculture. Businesses that want to secure tribal contracts, though, must be focused on the specific tribe and return on investment for that particular group, as well as have a clear understanding of their history and culture.

“The process is a very large one, because when you’re dealing with tribal contracting you’re dealing with sovereign governments, each with its own procurement opportunities,” Burke said. “Really, you have to go by tribal law.”

Contracting with the Tribes, while picking up interest by private businesses throughout the region, isn’t an area that’s yet in the limelight. Native PTAC is currently the point-person agency for learning about opportunities and how to qualify; even the Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board uses that office as a place of reference for queries.

“We like (the Tribes and tribal businesses in the region), and we know them, but we don’t have a lot of interaction at this point,” said Tacoma-Pierce EDB president Bruce Kendall.

One advantage that local companies can pick up on when seeking to work with Tribes is TERO certification, or training through the tribal Employment Rights Office. When looking for area businesses to complete contracting work, Tribes frequently target first companies that have been TERO-certified for their particular group. Also, note that although some Tribes have cross-affiliation recognition with others, most require that companies have their own specific TERO designation.

Marine View Ventures, a Puyallup Tribe enterprise, is one that specifically seeks to work first with either other tribal or TERO-certified contractors because they know how to work within the tribal system and are knowledgeable about complex tribal permitting.

“They know all the rules of the game,” said Marine View Ventures CEO Chad Wright. “And if we sense that someone is a good partner, then we’ll tap on them again and recommend them to other Tribes.”

The main tribal groups in the South Sound are the Puyallup, the Nisqually, the Chehalis, the Muckleshoot and the Squaxin, which all have in past months been busy with new projects. For each, the TERO designation needs to be separately earned by a company, but it gives that company a leg up on — and often a 10 percent cost preference over — those without it.

For the process of contracting itself, Burke explained that Tribes generally look to work with same tribal member businesses first. If none are qualified, they usually then look to outside businesses that are TERO-certified. Some Tribes, though, will place projects on hold until one or the other is available, rather than sign a contract with a general private company.

The trouble, though, is getting a foot in the door with tribal work.

“Find a project in Indian Country that’s small, or where you can be a subcontractor, to get some experience — and follow the rules of the Tribe,” Wright recommended. “It’s all about visibility. Getting a major project done like the Tahoma Market really puts a bright spot on that contractor and gives you a good reputation.”

At the Nisqually Board of Economic Development, CEO Richard Rinehart said that his agency has worked on many tribal contracts that include multi-million-dollar building projects for the Nisqually and Puyallup groups. In addition, his WHH Nisqually Federal Services construction company is wholly owned by the Nisqually Tribe and was co-founded out of the former Walsh, Hedlund and Harlow Construction firm to seek out government contracts. Military contracts between the Tribe and JBLM are hopefully in the future as well.

“The Nisqually Tribe is a neighbor of Ft. Lewis, so it makes sense that we could do a lot of work there,” he said. “We’re looking to build on that, as well as to add one (Tribal) Market (gas station/convenience store site) per area over the next few years.”

A final point of emphasis by all is that tribal law does indeed reign after the contract is signed, so interested businesses need to be not just aware of customs and history, but must also be wholly committed to following rituals.

“When you’re working in Indian country, trust and relationships are more important than anything else,” said Burke. “Face time, understanding that culture; it’s not unlike doing business in some Asian countries. They’ve seen a lot of snake oil and been taken advantage of in the past, and so they’re very careful to make sure anyone they do business with is respectful of their customs and heritage.”

But all in all, the way into tribal contracting is like a long journey: it begins with the first step.

That step, said Burke, should be into the Native PTAC office.

“We work with a lot of businesses just starting to get into Native contracting, and we’re a valuable resource at any stage,” she said. “And we’re grant-funded, so there are no fees and just a lot of consulting and training opportunities to get you started.”