Apr 29, 2014 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff WriterMany banks in Riverton saw a lot of activity Wednesday when oil and gas settlement checks of $6,300 were delivered to roughly 9,700 Northern Arapaho tribal members. And bank managers said they expected busy days again Monday and Tuesday with the arrival of checks of $13,200 for about 4,200 members of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
The checks are a result of a joint lawsuit between the two tribes regarding oil and gas leases on the Wind River Indian Reservation dating to the 1970s.
Both tribes encouraged their members to open bank accounts and secure their money and be on alert for fraud and robberies.
Wells Fargo Bank helped more than 200 tribal members open new accounts last week, said Riverton branch manager Tammy Leisy, adding that several individuals had to wait nearly six hours to open an account.
Five additional bankers from Casper joined the Riverton branch's dozen employees to cope with the demand.
Leisy said no problems were reported and everything went smoothly in what she described as an "organized chaos."
"Our team did an excellent job and our customers were very patient," she said.
Manager Chris Vonholtum of Central Bank and Trust in Riverton also had extra staff to help with the anticipated crowd. On Wednesday, he said roughly 200 people had cashed their checks, but many customers had opened bank accounts two weeks before the arrival of the checks.
The bank also arranged its branches in Riverton, Lander and Fort Washakie to have enough staff to make the transactions flow easily. For instance, The main entrance in Lander's bank was designated for customers who were interested in depositing checks while separate lines in the Riverton bank divided customers and non-customers.
The bank said it will resume helping customers open new bank accounts during the week of May 5.
"We really want to thank the tribes in helping us get the word out," Vonholtum said. "Their word there paid the dividends around town to keep things organized."
On Monday, new customers already had cashed their checks as early as 8:30 a.m. when the bank opened its doors.
"A handful" of customers had inquired about investment opportunities, said Becky Bjerke, manager at Bank of the West.
She said customers were encouraged to pursue that route if they were interested. Transactions also went "very smoothly" at Bank of the West, she said, adding that it expects more customers this week.
Public announcements about opening new bank accounts may have done their part among tribal members.
Visor, the owner of Sears Hometown Store in Riverton, said most of his customers last week paid with debit cards. Washers and dryers were a hot item at his store; he said 70 to 80 percent of his washers and dryers were sold to customers who were considering cost-effective purchases.
"A lot of folks are taking advantage of that extra income to save money in the long run," Visor said.
Larry Kusel, owner of Kusel's Furniture & Appliances, said he has enjoyed seeing families visit his store.
"It's been fun, because it's happy people," he said. "They're buying things they need, (and) I'm glad I was able to help."
Kusel also was appreciative of the customers who are making purchases locally. He said he had to order two truck-loads of beds for his customers and many took advantage of sales for whole living room sets.
While some check recipients purchased new furniture or appliances, others opted to improve their housing situation.
Wind River Realty owner Olivia Prince said many people have been interested in an upgrade.
"We had more people looking to upgrade their rentals or getting a larger rental or higher quality rental," Prince said. "Others are prepaying rent."
She said that although home and land sales did not jump, the interest was there, and others had inquired about down payments for new homes.
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