WHITECLAY, Neb. — Nearly 20 years after plans were first discussed, a dream is rising amid the misery of this notorious border village.
Workers are busily striving to complete a $16 million nursing home on land owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the south edge of this unincorporated village of about 20 people.
Whiteclay has been known as “the skid row of the Plains,” where street people openly sip malt liquor out of cans wrapped in paper bags, and some lie passed out amid trash and graffiti along the highway. It’s also where the equivalent of about 4 million cans of beer a year are sold by liquor stores, mostly to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border.
But soon, a 60-bed nursing home will open, fulfilling a long-time ambition of the tribe to allow its eldest residents to live out their last years near the reservation instead of at nursing homes far away in Rapid City or Hot Springs. Between 85 and 90 jobs are expected to be created in an area known for relentless poverty and unemployment.
“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s a good feeling that it’s finally here,” said Robert Martin, a former member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council who is working on the facility as a carpenter.
It’s also viewed as one of the few times the tribe and the State of Nebraska have worked together to get something done in Whiteclay.
Martin was on the tribal council when the project was first envisioned in the mid-1990s. But construction was blocked by a lack of money and by a moratorium on the construction of new nursing homes in both South Dakota, where the reservation is located, and nearby Nebraska.
Then-State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, whose district included the Whiteclay area, got involved, as did a local economic developer, Gary Ruse of Gordon, and a former state treasurer and top Health and Human Services administrator, Ron Ross, whose family operates nursing homes.
Eventually, those involved were able to get an exception to the moratorium, Ruse said, and they were able to work out a financing mechanism that would allow Medicaid payments and depreciation on the structure to pay off a $13.5 million loan the tribe got from the Shakopee Tribe of Minnesota to build the structure. The rest of the money came from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Ruse said the way the facility is being financed might serve as a model for other tribes in Nebraska to build similar facilities.
“It’s a wonderful thing, and I give 99 percent of the credit to Sen. Louden,” he said.
Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who has criticized Nebraska officials for their lack of action in shutting down the beer outlets in Whiteclay, said the nursing home is a point of pride for the tribe.
“It’s something we really needed,” Poor Bear said. “For once, Nebraska finally helped us.”
Many of the workers who will staff the facility will come from the Pine Ridge Reservation, which has a tribal nursing school.
A Christian ministry in Whiteclay called Lakota Hope held a class a few years ago to certify local people as nursing assistants. About five people earned certificates, and the group is considering another class.
“We are so encouraged and excited about the nursing home being our next-door neighbor,” said Lakota Hope director Bruce BonFleur.
Ground was broken on the home in 2012, but financing issues halted work for a time. There were also issues with obtaining water and sewer service for the site, which is about a mile south of the Nebraska-South Dakota border — within sight of the beer stores.
On Wednesday, workers were raising the standpipe for a new water tower on the South Dakota side of the border that will provide water for the nursing home. Nearly 2 miles of sewer pipe must be laid, and a pumping station built, to transport wastewater to a treatment plant near Pine Ridge, S.D.
The facility will have four fireplaces, a playroom for visiting kids, and sun rooms for residents. It’s being built so the tribe can add 20 more beds when it gets the money.
The nursing home is not expected to open to residents until January or February, and will open in stages, as skilled workers can be hired. The facility will be managed by a company run by Ross.
While there’s little expectation that the facility’s opening will turn around problems associated with the alcohol sales down the highway, it is viewed as a step in a new, and better, direction.
“To me, it’s going to be a big deal,” Louden said.
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