Lance Morgan: How Ho-Chunk grew and is investing in building communities

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Ho-Chunk Inc. was started by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska in 1995. The corporate mission of the company was to invest gaming dollars back into the community to help develop the tribe’s economy offset the negative impact of competition from Iowa’s gaming expansion.

Our original focus was on the tribe’s reservation, which isn’t exactly an easy place to build. However, we built an entire town from scratch called the Ho-Chunk Village. It is a mixed-use development designed to be a walkable community to offset some of the negative health impacts of diabetes, a major health problem amongst tribal people.

Twenty-six years later, the mission of Ho-Chunk Inc. hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we expanded our definition of community beyond the Tribe’s reservation and are now one of the largest real estate development companies in the Sioux City Metropolitan Area. In the last several years, we have invested approximately $85 million in the local area. We have purchased or developed apartments, warehouses, office buildings, storage units, retail outlets and are currently developing another mixed-use walkable community on 200 acres of riverfront in South Sioux City.

We formed and annually fund our own nonprofit community development corporation to offset some of the capital costs of rural reservation development. It took a decade, but we built the Ho-Chunk Village with a combination of corporate capital, federal grants, foundation money and federal tax credits. We are currently doubling the size of our original planned community to 80 acres.

Lance Morgan Community columnist

Along the way, we learned a few things about building in tough places. When we purchased the 200 acres in South Sioux City, it was a major step for us and raised a few eyebrows. South Sioux City is now a predominately Hispanic community. I had several people question whether building a high-end development would work. I can report that it is working. Our residents represent the entire spectrum in our community, with more than half of our homeowners and apartment residents representing a minority group.

This is America — groups arrive, work hard and then thrive. In the recent census, about 22% of Nebraska represents a minority group. We have always viewed these populations as an opportunity to grow our company.

I want to share a few small examples of what we do to help our communities. On the reservation, we give away housing lots. We build houses at cost and provide tribal members with up to $65,000 in down payment assistance. In Omaha, we remodeled some townhouses and rent them at about one-third of market value to people transitioning from chemical dependency treatment. We recently met with members of a grassroots Nigerian group in South Sioux City who wanted help purchasing a community and day care center. We bought the building and leased it to them to match their budget. We also recently agreed to price some of our newest housing units well below market to help lower income elderly people.

We are about to expand our definition of community again. We are developing the WarHorse Casinos in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City, and have proposed one in Norfolk. The WarHorse gaming operation intends to be a good community patron and donate money to various organizations, but we don’t want to just write a check. We also want to invest in sustainably building the communities. We will use our real estate development experience to make brick-and-mortar investments in the communities where we are located.

I grew up in North Omaha and for years I have often thought about how to apply some of the development lessons we have learned on the reservation to the area. A year ago, I toured some of the great stuff happening on North 30th Street and recently visited the emerging area on North 24th Street and was inspired by the possibilities. I also love the development emerging in South Omaha which is very similar to what is happening in South Sioux City.

Our view is that a rising tide should float everyone’s boat. We want to be a true community development partner and intend to work with and enhance existing efforts to bring our brand of community reinvestment capitalism to all the places we have operations.

Lance Morgan is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Harvard Law School.