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Plan for Towaoc grocery store gets a boost

Towaoc is the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Tribe embarks on a capital campaign to raise $12 million to address food desert

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is moving forward on its plans to build its first grocery store in Towaoc.

The Rocky Mountain Health Foundation recently awarded the tribe $30,000 to prepare a capital campaign plan to help the tribe raise about $12 million needed to build a grocery store and workforce innovation center.

The Center for Rural Outreach and Public Services Inc. contributed $6,000 in matching funds toward the project.

The tribe is in a “food desert” without convenient access to healthy food choices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats, said Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart. The nearest grocery stores are 15 miles away in Cortez.

Preliminary plans are to build the store north of the Ute Mountain Casino off U.S. Highway 491, and north of the powwow grounds.

“We are three steps closer to realizing our members’ dream of having a grocery store on the reservation,” Heart said in a May 12 news release.

The goal is to raise the funding by 2024 to build out all phases of the new business enterprise, he said.

Besides providing groceries and fresh foods, the facility will provide entrepreneurship opportunities, workforce training in the food industry and new jobs for tribal members.

Ute Mountain Planning Director Bernadette Cuthair spearheaded the project in 2019 when she applied for funding for a feasibility study and engaged the community in numerous planning sessions.

“The exciting thing about this project, besides bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to our food desert, is that the entire community in Towaoc had the opportunity to participate in focus group sessions or attend monthly steering committee meetings to provide input that led to the design of the facility,” Cuthair said in the release.

Focus group sessions engaged youth, elders, health professionals, tribal enterprises, Head Start, K-12 educators, program directors and tribal leaders.

Heart said the tribe has already applied for more than $5 million in grants for the project, and anticipates the funding will be available to begin the project by early next fiscal year.

A Grocery Store Capital Campaign Plan presentation is being produced by award-winning photographer Anthony Two Moons and is expected to be completed by mid-June, when it will be presented to the community and potential funding partners.

The feasibility study for the Grocery Store Project was supported by Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund in conjunction with Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado. CO4F is a private, statewide fund that aims to improve access to healthy food in underserved communities.

Progressive Urban Management Associates supported CO4F through marketing, outreach and technical assistance services to produce the feasibility study with Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member engagement.

The team also enlisted the support of Eric Kornacki of THRIVE Partners, an expert in food access and cultivation of food systems within marginalized communities. Kornacki has played a key role in engaging members of the community, project planning, architectural design, fundraising, and developing engineering and construction plans.