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LITTLE BOSTON — Noel Higa had been evaluating the Heronswood Gardens property on behalf of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe for two years before it went to auction in May.
As executive director of the Port Gamble Development Authority, he knew Heronswood would be an economic benefit to the Tribe, but he also recognized the cultural and education opportunities, a viewpoint very important to the Tribe.
“He brought a lot of new energy into the Tribe,” said Paul McCollum, director of the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department. “He’s really motivated, and he gets the whole tribal perspective.”
Higa became the economic development director about three and a half years ago. In his short tenure, he expanded the Gliding Eagle Marketplace and fuel station and secured land along Port Gamble Bay for the Natural Resources Department, in addition to acquiring Heronswood.
He was born in Seattle and raised in Los Angeles. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and art, and a master’s in civil engineering, he went to work in civil engineering and land development, opening his own companies.
After working for 20 years in the private industry, Higa said he wanted to get back to his social services roots.
Higa has become a more patient developer. Usually in economic development, you want to see results quickly, he said, but the growth he is trying to build for the Tribe needs to be long-term. Early on, he said he learned how many tribal members are subsistence fishermen or shellfish harvesters.
“Being a grocery store kid, the idea that [subsistence living] really was true anymore today blew me away,” Higa said.
Higa and McCollum worked together to purchase some land at the end of Port Gamble Bay that had a natural oyster bed.
“If we can do something that improves lives of those subsistence farmers, the Tribe benefits marginally from that,” Higa said. “If they see their quality of life improve, isn’t that economic development?”
Higa has been working with the University of Washington Foster School of Business, which put together a business planning study.
“There are a lot of pieces to economic development on the reservation that you don’t see in the community,” he said. Development is usually measured in profit, but to the Tribe, many other factors are equally important.
From the tribal perspective, Higa noted, he asks: Is the project the right thing to do in environmental standards? How will it affect community pride, neighbor relations, cultural expression, sovereignty, and employment opportunities?
The Tribe is looking to develop and operate businesses on the reservation, such as a family-style restaurant, a mechanic shop, and a health/fitness center. Higa and McCollum are also looking into a fishmarket store on the reservation for tribal fishermen.
Higa also consulted with Chris Placentia, executive director of the Tribe’s Housing Authority, for possible mixed-use residential units above the commercial units.
Port Gamble S'Klallam may be a closed reservation, but tribal members are a part of the wider North Kitsap community, and staff says the Tribe is in a unique position of growth.
“The most depressed area in Kitsap County are within the reservations, where the highest concentrations of poverty are,” Placentia said. “We’re trying to help out tribal members, and by helping out the lowest common denominator, we’re helping the entire area.”
Higa, who has a 33-year-old daughter and two grandchildren, said he left the private sector when friends of his who worked for the Tribe told him of the job opening. He said he wants to help the broader community understand the Tribe better.
“Their attachment to land, the [Port Gamble] bay … their culture and traditions all revolve around that bay,” he said. “I think people [outside the reservation] just don't understand how deep and meaningful that is to tribal members.”