A general store, a delicatessen and a shellfish hatchery - they were all supposed to add up to profits for the only federally recognized Indian tribe in the state, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
But instead of raking in cash, these business ventures have buried the Wampanoag tribe in red ink, with debts totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The fiscal mess turned so bad this year that tribal leaders took drastic action, selling off a tribe-owned camp on Chappaquiddick for $225,000 and liquidating $1.2 million of the tribe's stock account.
"We made that decision because we needed funds to satisfy some debts," Wampanoag tribal chairman Beverly Wright told the Gazette yesterday.
According to documents obtained by the Gazette and accounts in the tribe's own monthly newsletter, Wampanoag enterprises have done nothing but hemorrhage money. And just over a week before a Wampanoag election could reshuffle three seats on the tribal council, the economic crisis is fueling critics within the tribe who are questioning their leaders' decisions.
"We fought for years to get land back for the tribe," said former chairman Donald Widdiss. "And they sold a piece of land that was donated to the tribe and used to pay off debts. . . . People are frustrated and disgusted."
According to Mr. Widdiss and other sources within the Wampanoag leadership, tribal funds have been squandered through lack of planning.
"We didn't generate business plans for anything we did," said Mr. Widdiss, who led the tribe between 1987 and 1991. "We used our own money for collateral. That's financial suicide."
In one letter written last May, Mrs. Wright spelled out the details of the tribe's grim financial status.
A new shellfish hatchery that has been under construction for more than two years has already posted losses of $150,000 and is projected to lose another $240,000 before it can turn a profit, Mrs. Wright informed a federal agency. That information was conveyed to show that the tribe was in "severe fiscal distress" and unable to pay its matching share of a grant.
Meanwhile, the hatchery project has totally stalled while the tribe is fighting a drawn-out and costly legal battle with the town of Aquinnah over the Wampanoags' right to build a shed on tribal lands without a town building permit.
The other two enterprises - Back Alley's and Alley's General Store in West Tisbury - also spelled disaster for the tribe's balance sheets.
Both "suffered from operational mismanagement that has produced a loss that could total $750,000," Mrs. Wright wrote in the same letter. The tribe bought the Back Alley's business and building four years ago for $1 million and that same year paid another $475,000 to take over management of Alley's General Store.
Combined, the two transactions saddled the tribe with $1.5 million in debt and monthly payments totaling more than $12,000, according to an audit of tribal finances obtained by the Gazette.
But Back Alley's, a delicatessen and bakery, sat empty for more than a year until last July when the tribe finally found a tenant. In June, the tribe called its quits on the general store, turning the operation back over to the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the building.
Meanwhile, the tribe was also relying on interest income from its stock portfolio to cover the operating budget, the tribal chairman wrote. As stock values plummeted in the current recession, the tribe's reliance on interest from Wall Street investments meant substantial shortfalls in the annual budgets.
"The Tribe has incurred budget deficits of: $614,334 in [Fiscal Year] 2000, $71,418 in FY 2001, and $450,000 anticipated in FY 2002," she stated in the May letter.
Yesterday, when reached in San Diego while on a week-long business trip, Mrs. Wright declined to say whether the sell-off of stock and real estate had erased all tribal debts. Nor would she say if there's any money now left in the tribal savings account.
But not even Mrs. Wright could conceal that the tribe is paying the price for a series of bad business decisions.
"We're a young government. We make mistakes. We have to own up to our mistakes," she said. "When we don't properly manage businesses . . . then we have to look at other funding within the tribe to cover our debts."
Looming over the tribe's financial straits is the question of gambling. Last year, when Mrs. Wright successfully campaigned for another three years as chairman, she pledged to renew efforts to win support in Boston for a Wampanoag casino.
But if the tribe ever did score a win for a casino, according to the audit, another debt would immediately come due - $11.5 million owed to backers if the Wampanoags ever open a casino.
But even more important, said Mr. Widdiss, is the fact that the tribe's financial setbacks on the Vineyard have ruined any chance at making progress with business ventures on the mainland.
"There's a complete absence of credibility reinforced by the failures at Alley's and Back Alley's and the failure to get the hatchery up and running," said Mr. Widdiss, an ardent critic of how the tribe has handled money under Mrs. Wright's 11-year tenure.
Yesterday, Mr. Widdiss questioned the selling price of the tribe's 1.25 acres on Chappaquiddick. The property with a 280-square foot camp structure was valued by Edgartown assessors at $738,900, but the tribe sold it for just $225,000 to an abutter.
Mrs. Wright told the Gazette yesterday that the property was unbuildable, but according to the Edgartown building department, that determination had never been made by the town.
What's more, other tribal members say while the decision to sell the property was backed by a majority of the tribal council, sales of tribal land are supposed to be decided by the entire membership, not just the council.
Mr. Widdiss took aim at the management of the tribe's capital account, which totaled $3 million when he left the chairmanship, almost all of gained in a deal with NYNEX (now Verizon) to sell the telephone company land for cellular telephone towers.
"At a simple 10 per cent return, that money should have doubled in seven years," he said.
But this month's newsletter includes a letter from Robert MacDiarmid - Mrs. Wright's husband and a former tribal council member - that says the NYNEX nest egg is now drained.
"The capital is gone and so is the future income," Mr. MacDiarmid wrote. "Our books are balanced, but we are broke."