Effort afoot to rehab Whiteclay

Published Sunday January 17, 2010
BY PAUL HAMMEL
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — With its street drunks, vacant buildings and blowing trash, Whiteclay, Neb., has earned the title of “Skid Row of the Plains.”

But an effort is under way to create more jobs in the border town, creating some opportunity behind the decay and despair.

And another plan focuses on physically cleaning up the unincorporated community and providing more alcoholism treatment, law enforcement and jobs there.

It is a change of focus from the past, when most efforts aimed to close down the town’s four liquor stores. The stores sell 3.2 million cans of beer a year to residents of the adjacent — and officially dry — Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol-related violence and health problems are rampant.

One senator, Colby Coash of Lincoln, is trying to help a Whiteclay nonprofit group obtain state grants to remove litter and buy a local building to establish a recycling center that would provide jobs.

“Work is the great equalizer. It gives people hope,” Coash said.

Sens. Russ Karpisek of Wilber and Leroy Louden of Ellsworth plan to introduce bills this week to earmark liquor taxes for detox services, other health care needs and law enforcement.

Karpisek said providing $250,000 — roughly twice what Whiteclay generates in state liquor excise taxes a year — would address the shortage of alcohol treatment services in that area of northwest Nebraska and southwest South Dakota.

“I’m not in favor of just closing the liquor stores; I’m not sure that’s legal,” he said. “But this would give people a chance to try and get dried out.”

Whiteclay has been a magnet for national publicity for more than a decade, since the killings of two street people in 1999, which remain unsolved.

A parade of protests, meetings, studies and reports followed, by Nebraska, South Dakota and the federal government. But little action resulted.

Nebraska lawmakers took another look last year, conducting an interim study of the multiple problems plaguing Whiteclay. Karpisek, chairman of the study committee, and Coash visited the community along with Attorney General Jon Bruning.

They discovered that the ABOUT Group, a faith-based nonprofit organization, was providing some new jobs in town and had plans to open a mini-mall of Lakota-run craft businesses on Whiteclay’s main street and a day labor service for the reservation.

Coash recently set up meetings for Bruce BonFleur, the organization’s founder, to talk with state officials about obtaining grants for job creation, litter cleanup and removal of dilapidated buildings.

BonFleur said he came away encouraged about the prospects of getting help from the Department of Economic Development to start a recycling center and from the Attorney General’s Office to obtain lawsuit-settlement funds for an extensive cleanup day.

Once clean, Whiteclay — which has two grocery stores and a dozen other businesses — could attract investment because it sits at the entrance to a reservation with upward of 30,000 residents, said BonFleur and others.

“Ford Motor Co. isn’t going to come in there and build cars, but if there’s 30,000 to 50,000 people on that reservation, there’s room for retail sales,” said Louden, whose district includes Whiteclay.

He has been working several years to get a nursing home for Native Americans built in Whiteclay, which would provide local jobs.

BonFleur said he is aware of investors who would establish or expand businesses in Whiteclay if the streets were cleaned up. More jobs, in turn, would reduce the conditions that spawn alcoholism, he said.

“The people here, the majority of them, would like to work. And our experience is that they’d stay sober to do that,” BonFleur said.

An official with one of the few alcohol rehabilitation facilities in the area, North East Panhandle Substance Abuse in Gordon, said five more beds could be added with a $250,000 matching grant. The facility now has two detox beds and seven beds for longer-term residential treatment.

Jane Morgan, director of NEPSA, said her agency regularly has a waiting list of 20 people.

The plans aren’t without hurdles.

Some Native Americans don’t like the ABOUT Group and contend it exacerbates the problem of street people gathering in Whiteclay by letting a local church operate a soup kitchen at the group’s facility.

One Indian activist last week threatened to sue the organization, along with Whiteclay’s liquor stores, claiming they were exploiting Native Americans. BonFleur said he was perplexed about why his organization was included in the accusation.

Morgan acknowledged it might be a challenge for her agency to come up with a matching amount for a state grant. And with state coffers bare, legislators have had little appetite for new spending.

Coash, though, pointed out that the grant money he’s helping BonFleur seek already exists.

Karpisek said a couple of his other bills would increase state liquor fees, which would more than offset the money he’s seeking for Whiteclay.

“I agree that we really need to watch it, but I don’t think we need to cut off every bill at the knees,” he said, referring to the Legislature’s frugal mood. “We need to move forward.”

Contact the writer:
402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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