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 Four Indian Tribes Form Unique Partnership to Build Residence Inn
 by Marriott Near the U.S. Capital; Their Strategy Looks
 Far Beyond the Casino Business
By Jim Adams, Indian Country Today, Oneida, N.Y.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 16, 2005 - WASHINGTON -- Melodic chants of millennia-old bird songs from southern California joined the beat of a Midwestern Algonquin drum group and an Iroquoian invocation as four tribes from diverse backgrounds joined to honor the opening of their joint venture hotel March 3.

The "Four Fires" partnership had plenty to celebrate at their Marriott Residence Inn here, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol and the National Museum of the American Indian. Since the new facility began taking guests Jan. 16, its bookings have run far above expectations. Starting at 65 percent its first few weeks, it was completely full the week of the opening, which coincided with several major Indian gatherings. Hotel executives hope for 80 percent booking for the rest of the year.

The inter-tribal partnership, one of the first and most diverse of its kind, brought together the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, both of southern California, and the Forest County Potawatomi Community and the Oneida Tribe of Indians, both from Wisconsin. The tribes flew in dozens of tribal members each for the opening, from elders to small children.

Native decor is subtle in the 13-story, 233-suite building. Niche boxes in the lobby display crafts from the four tribes and the walls use the same Minnesota Kasota limestone that forms the exterior of the NMAI building on the National Mall. But the message for Indian country came in loud and clear.

"There's strength in unity," said Viejas Chairman Anthony R. Pico in a prepared statement. "That applies in business today just as it did during the trading days. Economic viability is necessary to build strength and unity among tribal nations.

"My commitment is to an Indian economy, where all canoes will ride on the rising tide. Envision an economy where tribes with the financial resources partner, invest in, and support other tribal governments in their search for economic self-reliance."

Although the four tribes used gaming revenues to start up their partnership in 2002, their strategy looks far beyond the casino business.

"Gaming will go away," San Manuel Chairman Deron Marquez told guests. "Diversification is necessary to our success as a tribe."

Unlike many recent tribal hotel expansions, the Four Fires project has no connection with a casino: it's a franchise of Marriott International, founded by a Mormon family opposed to gambling. (The franchisor, International Chairman J.W. Marriott Jr., son of the founder, attended the opening and gave a rare press conference.)

"These are two different businesses," said Michael Dickens, head of the hotel management company Hospitality Partners. Dickens is responsible for 15 other properties in the D.C. area, as well as the Four Fires hotel, which is formally named Residence Inn by Marriott-Capitol. He told Indian Country Today that unlike destination resort hotels linked to casinos, business hotels must be located near economic centers.

The Marriott passed that test handily. Surrounding blocks include major government offices, such as the Department of Education, as well as the Congressional office buildings for the House of Representatives. The San Manuel Band now owns one of the former Congressional Annex buildings and maintains a Washington office on the top floor.

Although the tribal partnership planned on tourist traffic for the NMAI building, which opened last September, it received an unexpected bonus when D.C. secured the return of a major league baseball team. A new stadium for the Washington Nationals is expected to open in several years within 15 blocks of the hotel. Several speakers kidded baseball fan Marquez on his good fortune.

The project is riding on the reviving fortunes of the hotel industry, which went through a sharp slump after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has also caught the crest of a renaissance in the Washington, D.C. economy. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams bragged to guests about a surge in convention business fostered by the city's new convention center.

Three of the four tribes are applying the same formula in alliance with Marriott International in the capital of California. The Three Fires LLC, the Oneidas of Wisconsin and the two California tribes, broke ground on a $53 million, 239-suite Marriott Residence Inn in Sacramento last December. It is located next to Capitol Park, center of the state Legislature and executive government.

Marquez said the San Manuel Band would also be opening a Hampton Inn franchise of its own near its Highland, Calif., reservation. He said he hoped for a series of future inter-tribal partnerships.

"When a project is successful, it gives you an appetite to do more," said Hospitality Partners head Dickens.

Harold "Gus" Frank, chairman of the Forest Country Potawatomi Community executive council, and Karen Hughes, vice chairman of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, also spoke, each acknowledging the large contingents from their tribe in the audience. Artley Skenandore, a culture keeper and former business manager for the Oneida, gave an extended invocation in Oneida, as he had at the earlier groundbreaking. "Things have gone so well since then," said Dickens, "we had to have him do it again."

Pico presented Pendleton blankets to Marriott, Dickens and James A. Donohoe III, president of the project developer The Donohoe Companies. Pico joked that the wool blankets would be useful against the cold outside as he wrapped them over his partners' shoulders. He later joined the circle of bird singers as they bobbed in a two-step dance accompanied by gourd rattles and melodies that he said went back 10,000 years.


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Copyright (c) 2005, Indian Country Today, Oneida, N.Y.

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