The economy is humming in Montezuma Creek

On a San Juan River terrace thousands of years old, where natural cobbles make a bumpy parking lot, trucks and cars are lined up around a neatly painted metal building. The site may be ancient, but the citizens of Montezuma Creek, Utah, are beginning a new enterprise there.

Named Navasew LLC, the business offers jobs sewing shirts for the U.S. Army. America’s high-tech soldiers fighting in the deserts of Iraq will now be garbed in camouflage created in the deserts of Utah.

Sewing a uniform shirt at Navasew

Navajos of Montezuma Creek belong to families living there long before historic records mentioned them in the 1860s, but life in the arid Four Corners — though often beautiful — has always been hard. Presently unemployment is more than 50 percent on the reservation.

For a time, the 12,000-square-foot building occupied by Navasew was used by a ski-wear company called Bula. But globalization caused them to move operations overseas three years ago, throwing their small work force out of jobs and leaving the building vacant.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, two men long employed in the textile industry – Richard Chase and Brian Roberge – also “saw the handwriting on the wall,” Chase said. Both were working in the struggling textile industry and saw that they were likely to lose their jobs, so they decided to become entrepreneurs. Together they formed Omega Apparel in Tennessee, Chase being the operations manager and Roberge the chief financial officer. Omega is based upon the idea of teaming with HUD and non-profit agencies to start new plants that will supply textile items to the U.S. military.

Its agenda is to locate a jobless area, put together financing for a new operation, guide the enterprise for at least 10 years, train the local work force at all levels, and secure a business alliance between the new company and Omega’s successful Tennessee plant. Such an alliance enables production flexibility and allows both plants to receive preference for Department of Defense contracts.

Chase and Roberge learned about Montezuma Creek, with its empty building and able work force, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which put them in touch with the non-profit ICA Group, a consulting and venturedevelopment organization in Massachusetts, and eventually with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Co-op.

When Chase first arrived in Montezuma Creek from the greenery of Tennessee, one can only imagine how it looked to him. Some visitors are instant lovers of this landscape where every ridge and mesa is etched against the skyline and all shade gradually from brown to smoky blue with distance. Here green is precious.

Asked what he thought of the tiny town upon his arrival, Chase just laughed. In any case, he spent 14 months training Navajos to sew camouflage shirts for the Army. He plans to be on-site another eight to 10 weeks before leaving Navasew in the hands of its workers, guided by a newly hired plant manager, Bennett Korach, also a 35-year veteran of America’s collapsing textile industry.

Omega Apparel is structured with many workers and few bosses. Navasew will have just one plant supervisor, who eventually may also be a Native American. According to Chase, only about 15 percent of the company structure consists of “indirect” jobs – janitor, payroll clerk, mechanic, packer, and manager. There are no middle men, a situation that is not only efficient but also satisfying for employees.

Navasew ownership was turned over entirely to its own workers in 2004. Employees directly own 53 percent of company stock, leaving 47 percent divided between Chase and Roberge, all a strictly private ownership. Most of the employees are female and Native American.

Under a 10-year agreement with the government and the Navajos, Omega will continue to guide Navasew for another five to six years. Chase and Korach will take employees to negotiate with buyers in Philadelphia, teach locals how to deal with the Department of Defense and its paperwork, and coach them in contracting with fabric mills back East.

This entire home-grown scenario is promulgated under the Buy America Act and the so-called Berry Amendment, which mandates that all clothing for the Armed Forces must be made in the United States, of components whose very threads are also made domestically. This created a niche for people like Chase and Roberge to promote local industry.

Chase said if the Army is looking at any two providers, the one willing to start in a jobless area gets the contract. Navasew in Montezuma Creek pays based upon piecework. According to Chase, the average wage earned under the piece-incentive system is $8.50 per hour. One worker at the established Tennessee plant consistently earns $14 per hour, he said.

But this certainly does not feel like a sweatshop. Perhaps it is the building’s cavernous interior with its vaulted ceiling, or the soothing desert-colored camouflage heaped over numerous tables, or a certain serenity carried by the Navajos – whatever the cause, the place conveys an unexpected air of grace.

The company started in December 2003 with only 13 workers, but is expanding and will soon reach more than 100. Navasew had a five-year contract to make shirts for the Army at 171,000 units per year, and this was recently increased to 250,000 per year. Among the Navajos, both men and women traditionally have worked in arts and crafts. Some men already are sewing at the new plant, and more have applied for jobs there.

Chase, with obvious enthusiasm, explained every aspect of the company’s product. The shirts represent the first change to Army camouflage in 20 years, constructed of thick rip-stop nylon in a medley of cool desert shades – light gray-browns and soft olives with the pattern produced randomly, as it is digitized. As required by law, they are totally made in America. Every two weeks, Navasew receives 2,000 pre-cut shirts in pieces from the Tennessee plant. It takes 43 operations to put each garment together.

The shirts are designed for combat, with some pockets specially slanted so that a soldier can reach inside them while lying flat on the ground, and elbow pads for crawling. Instead of buttons, these shirts have a heavy-duty nylon zipper up the entire front. (Zipper failure could be more problematic than button failure, but no doubt experts thought of that.) Every pocket and opening is provided with Velcro fasteners to close out sand. On one arm is a pocket with a special patch, covered with a tiny Velcro flap, that reflects red under night vision so that troops can detect a friend rather than a foe. Soldiers are supposed to wear these shirts beneath their body armor, and the high, soft collars are designed as an old-fashioned plain band, to prevent body armor from chafing the neck.

When Navasew is fully staffed, it will mean a great deal to the people working there and the local economy. One young woman, the quality-control specialist, too modest to give her name for print, said she used to drive back and forth to work in Cortez, and now has two extra hours a day to spend with her family.

Marlene Dee Ben of the Montezuma Creek Workforce Center, believes she can move five to 10 women, some as young as 18, from welfare to work with Navasew. Young parents seeking a way to support their children can be completely trained by the company, she said.

Chase intends to leave behind a competent operation when Omega Apparel completes its mentoring at Montezuma Creek. Omega will move on to repeat the whole process in another location with high unemployment, perhaps elsewhere in the Four Corners.

Navajos historically have received what is new and transmuted it into what is culturally their own. At Navasew, although still under tutledge in complex and specialized business practices, already these workers have created something essentially Navajo.

From July 2005.