On April 4, the Warm Springs commissary building crawled to a new location on Wasco Drive, in view of Highway 26 via a Wolfe's hydraulic Buckingham Power and Coaster Dolly, a massive remote-controlled dolly that supported the two-story structure.
The federal government built the commissary in 1896 to distribute grains, flour, seeds and tools for members of the tribes. Just 41 years prior to the Commissary's construction, the superintendent of Indian affairs for the Oregon Territory, Joel Palmer, negotiated treaties with the Warm Springs and Wasco tribes that relinquished 10 million acres of Indian land and established the reservation. Now, the building is taking on a new life.
- Credit Jack Harvel
- The massive remote-controlled dolly towed the building up Wasco Street to its new location where it’s visible from the highway. The building will eventually be used as a business incubator, with hopes that it’ll pull in some of the 8,000 or so cars that pass by every day.
"We're not exactly sure how many years it served as a commissary distributing supplies," said Chris Watson, executive director of the Warm Springs Community Action Team. "At a certain point, the use of the building changed. We know that from roughly the 1950s until the '90s that the building was used by the tribes' natural resources department as their offices. Now the natural resource department has 200-plus employees, and they've clearly outgrown the commissary."
The building has sat vacant since 1998, along with some old Commodore 64 computers, IBM Selectric typewriters and a box of expired minute rice—which is how they deduced the 1998 exit. In 2016 WSCAT considered repurposing the building, guided by the tribe's 2014 strategic infrastructure plan that considered a small business incubator. The repurposed commissary will eventually act as a local commercial hub.
WSCAT plans to include a bottom floor with business spaces including the Painted Pony, a coffee shop that's currently next to the Indian Head Casino, a gift shop with local crafts and two open spaces that people can apply to fill. The second floor is planned to be a coworking space for several different local businesses.
"That space is where the local small businesspeople who don't have a space, or even a desk to basically do business at. We'll provide them with the computers, the desks, the spaces, a media center, information, all the things that they need to basically keep their business working," said Starla Green, general manager of the commissary project.
The coworking space and commercial units are expected to be completed by next spring, with more renovations to come. Moving the building in view of the highway is meant to draw in some of the over 8,000 cars that pass through on Highway 26 every day.
"In the coming years we're putting an outdoor pavilion, food carts, around the outside and a couple of brick-and-mortar food businesses to operate out of, too. Then a commercial kitchen years later so that people who make smoked salmon and pepper berry jam and different types of value-added food will have a place where they can do that," Watson said.
Hosting a food cart lot won't be a stretch, and WSCAT already hosts a small business acceleration program at both the Painted Pony Cafe and Twisted Teepee food cart. Green started with WSCAT at the Twisted Teepee as part of a workforce training program.
"I was hired as the food cart manager/trainer, which is the Twisted Teepee, and we started that from ground zero as a training program to provide a workspace for one, but also provide job skills for individuals," Green said.
Right now, people have to drive 15 minutes south to do a lot of their shopping, with just 12 retail brick and mortar businesses on the reservation. Watson says that about $9 of every $10 spent on retail goes outside of the reservation, despite the community's strong entrepreneurial tendencies that comprise an informal trading network.
"We call it the shade tree economy; it's the folks that are not necessarily licensed but they're selling back and forth to each other, and that's a huge part of the reservation economy," Watson said. "Unfortunately, though, people do have to go to Madras to shop. And we're hoping, with this project, to at least start to change that."
The building trudged along Wasco Street for about five hours before landing at its new home, though its mission could take decades to accomplish. Despite its age, the building is holding up well. The commissary origins are painful for some tribal members, but once repurposed it could provide a great service to the community.
"It represents some things that people don't necessarily like, those systems of dependence and oppression, but it's historic, too," Watson said. "We're going to take this old building and do a few things with it, that retain the historical nature of it, but make it a net zero energy building with solar panels, and skylights and high ceilings and be really useful for the entrepreneurs that are going to set up here."