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As other tribes in Southern California begin to reopen casinos after extended coronavirus closures, the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, a non-gaming tribe, is betting on a different kind of business venture. The tribe has opened a convenience store and gas station in Mountain Center, just off a remote stretch of Highway 74.

Mayme Modesto, a tribal council member and lead manager for the new business, said the store's impact — economic and otherwise — will be big for the tribe. The project has been about a decade in the making.

“We really wanted to do this for our people and we were able to get it done,' she said. Modesto also served on a business committee for the store alongside members Dolores Odom, Mercedes Estrada and Alyssa Gray. “We’re all women here, and we really feel that we accomplished something.'

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The Santa Rosa tribe has a relatively small membership, only about 130 people, compared to tribes like neighboring Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which has several hundred members. Most of Santa Rosa's revenue currently comes from leasing plots on Toro Peak, in the Santa Rosa Mountains, to communications companies, Modesto said. But there's not much usable land there, and as the number of members living on the nearby reservation grows, the tribe has been looking for other ways to supplement that revenue.

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© Taya Gray/The Desert Sun Santa Rosa Pit Stop, a convenient store and gas station recently opened on Highway 74 in Mountain Center, Calif., is photographed on Sunday, June 7, 2020. The translation of the Cahuilla saying on the structure is, 'Goodbye, goodbye, see you again soon.'

“We don’t have the economic development that the other tribes have been very successful in, with their gaming,” Modesto said. “We really had to push this project forward because we need to start bringing in income to help our government – to pay for our roads, pay for our water usage.'

The convenience store, called the Santa Rosa Pit Stop, employs 10 people. Modesto hopes that in the future, local vendors from the tribe will also be able to sell some of their wares in the store, and booths with handmade products can be set up outside in the summer.

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© Taya Gray/The Desert Sun Santa Rosa Pit Stop cashier and Santa Rosa tribal member Lynda Hernandez rings up a customer inside the convenient store in Mountain Center, Calif., on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Initial focus away from casinos

When indigenous nations in California first began investing in casinos several decades ago, Santa Rosa's tribal council at the time didn't follow suit, Modesto said.

“They considered it risky, not something that would be feasible in our area,' she said. 'So we really missed the ticket on that one.'

But now, with the help of funding from other local gaming tribes, facilitated through the Indian Gaming Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, Santa Rosa was able to save enough over the years to build its convenience store, Modesto said.

Pinnacle Bank also helped finance the project, and Native American-owned Oak and Stone Consultants and Sunflower Consulting Group provided assistance. Though the tribe feels fortunate to have invested in a business considered 'essential' during the pandemic, coronavirus has added a certain amount of trepidation to the opening of any small business.

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“It is scary times, you know, trying to launch a new business and making sure that customers feel safe, staff feel safe,' she said. 'That is a priority for us.'

© Taya Gray/The Desert Sun Santa Rosa Pit Stop employee Makayla Barragan makes potato wedges inside the convenient store in Mountain Center, Calif., on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Other business ventures

Because of the Santa Rosa reservation's rather remote location, about 30 minutes southeast of Idyllwild, the tribe has had to get creative about new business.

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“We’re really in an area that I call the ‘dead zone,’ where we’re not quite far to Palm Desert, not quite there to Anza, so we’re really helping out not just our whole community (with the store), but also the outside community to help them with their needs,' Modesto said.

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© Courtesy of Steven Estrada Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Council Member Steven Estrada

As for other future ventures, the tribe is planning to start growing hemp. Santa Rosa was one of three tribes to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for hemp production in December 2019.

In January, former Chairman Steven Estrada (who is now a council member) told The Desert Sun that the tribe planned to have a list of prospective growers by the end of 2020, and to start handing out licenses in 2021. The tribe didn't intend to have a dispensary or processing plant on the reservation.

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Growers will process hemp into products like CBD oil elsewhere, or sell hemp plants to other retailers across the state, Estrada said. Santa Rosa estimated that cultivating hemp could bring in about $3 million in annual revenue.

Modesto said the tribe is still continuing with its pre-coronavirus hemp plans, and is hoping to start 'putting a shovel to the ground' later this year.

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This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: For a tribe without a casino, new convenience store on Highway 74 may be economic boon