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WHITECLAY, Neb. — Business is booming in Whiteclay, and it’s not just the 4.6 million cans of beer sold there last year.

Many people know Whiteclay as the small, unincorporated village on the border of Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a tiny spot on the map with a big alcohol problem. It’s where four beer stores sold 191,649 cases of beer in 2009, according to the Nebraska Liquor Commission. That translates into about 4.6 million cans.

But two Whiteclay business owners said few people realize the border town is also the place that sold $2.7 million worth of groceries in 2009.

Vic Clarke, manager of Arrowhead Foods in Whiteclay, and Lance Moss, owner of the town’s other grocery store, Whiteclay Grocery, each did more than $1.3 million worth of business last year, without selling a single can of beer. They sell food and general merchandise, but no alcohol in their stores. At least 95 percent of their grocery customers come from Pine Ridge, people like Ron and Daniel Clifford, who drive 2 miles to Whiteclay almost daily to shop.

“No tax,” said Ron Clifford of his grocery shopping trips to Nebraska. “If we got the gas money, we’ll go to Chadron.” The nearest Wal-Mart is located in Chadron, 45 miles from Pine Ridge.

Nebraska exempts food products from its 5-½-cent sales tax, something that South Dakota doesn’t do.

And food prices are generally considered lower at the Whiteclay stores than they are at Sioux Nation Shopping Center’s grocery store in Pine Ridge village, owned by Cohen’s Wholesale out of Illinois.

On June 10, the Cliffords were among an estimated 1,000 customers who shopped for groceries in Whiteclay. At 12 a.m. on the 10th of each month, electronic food stamp cards are activated with the recipient’s monthly credits and by the time Moss opens his store at 8 a.m., people are waiting in line to shop. Parking lots are crowded and traffic jams the one paved road that passes through town.

“I’ll do one week’s worth of business in one day,” said Moss, who had sales receipts of about $24,000 on June 10.

The story is much the same across the street at Arrowhead Foods, where Clarke, the former owner, adds an extra cashier or two just to handle the monthly rush of shoppers. Neither store sells beer, wine or liquor, but Clarke proudly points out that he did sell $42,000 worth of broasted chicken in 2009.

“That’s a lot of broasted chicken,” he said.

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There are many reasons people drive from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay, and beer is just one of them, said Moss, a 41-year-old second-generation grocery store owner. Moss bought Whiteclay Grocery in 2000, a business he grew up in when his parents owned it until the 1980s. His mother, Cathy Anderson, runs the Whiteclay post office where about 50 people get their mail. The post office is located in the grocery store,

People come to Whiteclay to get their lawnmowers fixed and their chainsaws repaired. They come to buy used cars and to eat in the town cafe or its newly-opened drive-through burger shop.

Customers also come to town to shop for tools, tennis shoes and horse tack at Abe’s New & Used.

Norma Blacksmith and her niece Robyn Two Crow have more work than they can handle at the newly opened Native Quilting Shop. Blacksmith recently moved her longtime star quilting business out of her house in Pine Ridge and into a building in Whiteclay owned by the ABOUT Group, a local ministry that has been active in Whiteclay for six years.

And ever since the state of South Dakota raised taxes on cigarettes by $1 per pack in 2007,   more reservation residents drive across the state line to purchase cigarettes in Whiteclay. Cigarette sales have quadrupled at his store, Moss said.

“A third of my total sales is probably cigarettes,” he said.

There are 20 businesses listed by the Nebraska Department of Revenue in the Whiteclay zip code, four of them off-sale beer stores. In 2009, Whiteclay businesses did almost $5 million ($4,965,000) in taxable sales, up from $4.2 million in 2008 and $3.9 million in 2007, according to Doug Ewald, Nebraska tax commissioner.

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The four beer “stores” — Jumping Eagle Inn; D&S Pioneer Service; State Line Liquor and Arrowhead Inn  — are little more than big beer cooler storage units fronted by a sales counter in a small public area.

At the Arrowhead Inn, the beer cooler is an enormous L-shaped room in a former filling station that is kept at 40 degree. Beer is stacked 9 feet high.

The front of the package beer store is a counter, with several doors behind it that all lead to the cooler.

The beer stores comprise the majority of the net taxable sales in Whiteclay, but exact sales tax numbers from individual businesses are considered proprietary information and not available to the public. Jumping Eagle is owned by Stuart Kozal; D&S Pioneer is owned by Douglas and Steve Sanford; State Line is owned by Clay Brehmer and Arrowhead Inn is owned by Jason Schwarting, who also owns Arrowhead Foods.

Overall beer sales in Whiteclay have risen three years in a row; from nearly 400,000 gallons in 2007 to 426,586 gallons in 2008 and 431,207 gallons in 2009.

Clarke counts himself among five or six permanent residents of Whiteclay. He has lived in Whiteclay since 1993 in a five-bedroom house that’s attached to Arrowhead Foods, which was formerly VJ’s Market when he owned it. Clarke sold the store to Schwarting in 2008, but continues to manage it.

Others put Whiteclay’s population at 14, and according to the U.S. Census, 62 people live in the Whiteclay zip code, which covers a wider area of northern Sheridan County. Whatever its official population, 4.6 million cans of beer makes for a whopping “per capita” beer sales figure.

“You always hear in the media about how Whiteclay has the highest ‘per capita beer sales in the world,’” Clarke said. “Given our population, I probably sell more broasted chicken per capita than any place in the world, too. I bet I sell more hamburger per capita than anybody in the nation.”

With a 5-½ percent state sales tax in Nebraska, approximately $273,000 in sales tax was collected in Whiteclay in 2009, Ewald estimated.

 That number doesn’t include motor vehicle taxes paid by used car dealers in Whiteclay or the $133,674 in state excise taxes and $250,100 in federal excise taxes that Whiteclay alcohol sales produced in 2009. Excise taxes are paid by the beer distributors out of Gering and Scottsbluff that service Whiteclay.

As a business owner, Moss doesn’t think Whiteclay gets its money’s worth in public services for the taxes that it sends to Lincoln each year.

“There’s really no public services in Whiteclay,” said Moss, who lives two miles south of  town.

There is no municipal water source, or much in the way of public infrastructure in Whiteclay. Residents and businesses have private septic system for sewage disposal and garbage is  burned in incinerators or barrels, since there is no commercial garbage collection in Whiteclay.

 Its public safety needs are handled by either the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department or the Nebraska Highway Patrol. Sometimes the Pine Ridge ambulance service sends emergency medical personnel for medical needs across the state line.

But Moss is also a pragmatist about the social problems that plague Whiteclay. He takes a fatalistic view of the alcohol-addicted vagrants who line its streets most day, panhandling customers who come and go from his grocery store.

“It is what it is,” Moss said. Nothing will change in Whiteclay until one of two things happens, he said: Individuals either make the choice to get off the streets or law enforcement removes them.

Moss rarely calls the sheriff or highway patrol to deal with troublesome vagrants, because law enforcement’s presence causes more problems for his paying customers than it solves with the vagrants, he said. He accuses police of ignoring the vagrants and taking down license plate numbers of people shopping in his store. Compliance checks for liability insurance, or issuing tickets for busted headlights, is often the result.

 “The cop’s presence, it hurts business,” he said.

The Cliffords were back in Whiteclay on June 11, shopping for used tools from Lew Abold at his general merchandise store.

That day, as many others, they encountered their cousin J.J.Winters, one of 20 or so people loitering in Whiteclay. Vagrants sleep on the sidewalk, drink in abandoned buildings and wander Whiteclay panhandling for money to buy another beer.

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Winters asked for money and a smoke, but only got a cigarette from his cousins.

Like many Native Americans, the Cliffords often feel an obligation to give money, food or a ride back home to Pine Ridge to their relatives that they encounter on the streets of Whiteclay.

“That way, they’re not bothering other people,” Ron explained.

Blacksmith, 70, said the addicted street people — some of whom are her relatives — are bothering her and others. She takes the opposite approach with them.

“They know they’re going to get preached at by me,” Blacksmith said. “I tell them Lakota warriors are not alcoholics and drug addicts.”

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Bruce Bonfleur, director of the ABOUT Group’s 555 Whiteclay Christian ministry, thinks the days are “numbered” for Whiteclay vagrants, in part because their daily existence is finally being acknowledged in the halls of state government in Lincoln.

Whiteclay is ready for transformation, said Bonfleur, and he has big plans for what it should look like.

He organized an April clean-up, Whiteclay Redux, 2010, with the help of a $10,000 state grant. The cleanup fell far short of his goals to demolish abandoned buildings.

His vision of the new, improved Whiteclay would have an aluminum can recycling facility; a commercial greenhouse operation, Green Tipi Gardens; a day labor program and a variety of Lakota artists marketing their crafts directly to tourists, as Blacksmith and Two Crows do.

Whiteclay should be the gateway to cultural tourism opportunities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, not a repository for street people, he said,

Clarke is frustrated by Bonfleur’s approach to Whiteclay’s vagrant problem, something that Clarke accuses the ministry of increasing over the years by putting out a welcome mat of free meals and warm blankets. He has seen other ministries come and go through Whiteclay over the years and admits he’s suspicious of their motives and their results.

“Are we not enabling?” Clarke asks, naming a litany of free goods and services, including a disc golf course that Bonfleur offers in town. 

Another ministry, Hands of Faith, serves three meals a week — two lunches and one breakfast — at 555 Whiteclay. A filthy couch that’s losing its stuffing sits in the shade outside the ministry’s building, providing a comfortable seat on a hot day.

But Bonfleur said his ministry has switched gears to provide more work opportunities, and fewer handouts, to vagrants. It was recently the recipient of a $30,000 partnership grant from the Northwest Community Action Partnership in Chadron. Those American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will pay for a day labor program and the planned greenhouse in Whiteclay, under the auspices of ABOUT.

The economic reality of Whiteclay is especially apparent in the location of the new drive-through burger shop managed by Michelle Talbot. It is housed in the back of the Arrowhead Inn beer store, in what was once a laundromat.

So the beer sales that contribute to exploitation and addiction on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation also provide a place for Talbot to run a thriving business that employs two people and provides a much needed service.

“There wasn’t any place to get a burger after 6 p.m.,” Talbot said.

The long-running battle to eliminate the human problems posed by Whiteclay may hinge on finding some way to balance the tensions between the sale of beer and the sale of everything else, including Talbot's burgers.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com.  

Jomay Steen contributed to this story.

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