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Close-up: Glenn Quiroga

Sycuan executive’s early exposure to tribe’s business helped him prepare for high-level responsibility

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From working in landscaping as a teenager to becoming the executive vice president in charge of business development, Glenn Quiroga has come a long way in his career, all of it with the Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation (STDC).

A member of the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay Nation, he grew up in El Cajon before moving east to the reservation in Dehesa Valley when his tribe built homes in 1991.

Quiroga’s father was an auto mechanic and his mother is a nurse at the reservation clinic. A single mother, she always pushed him to work hard and do well.

The tribe’s elders encouraged youngsters to explore their options and set up an internship program in which youth could train for different careers at the casino, the resort and in real estate management. That’s how Quiroga got started in his career.

The internship rotates the tribe’s youth through all the departments, starting with maintenance, moving inside to the front desk and then to the golf course and other areas.

Quiroga recalls being 15 years old and working summers in landscaping, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the hot sun.

Glenn Quiroga

“I realized I didn’t want to do this forever. I wanted to get ahead, and my mother kept telling me to get an education,” he said.

He got accepted at several universities but decided to stay close to home, since he did not want to leave his mother by herself.

While he went to college he also traveled with his uncle, the tribe’s chairman Daniel Tucker, and sat in on meetings with politicians and business executives, observing and learning.

He was still at the University of San Diego when the tribe offered him a position as assistant director for its insurance program. Since he was also starting a family, he quit school and accepted the job.

From there, he became the treasurer of the tribe, overseeing its financials and working with the casino CEO on loans and funding. He was in his mid-20s in 2003 when he stood for elections and won the four-year term as treasurer.

At 33, he is now the executive vice president overseeing new ventures for STDC.

Asked if he ever felt unprepared for the increasing levels of responsibility at a young age, he said he learned on the job.

“I was always learning -- but not a textbook education -- lessons from the real world, how to deal with people,” Quiroga said. “My mother is my No. 1 mentor. My uncle Daniel Tucker is another mentor, and those trips with him taught me a lot.”

They have had a major impact on his career and most decisions he’s made. But he said his rise to the top is not an anomaly, more the norm for the tribe’s younger generation -- as the tribe encourages members to get educated, go through the internship program and rise to positions of responsibility.

“We really want our youth to aspire to run the resort or a business,” Quiroga said. The corporation has eight tribal members as directors now.

He doesn’t consider 15 an early age to learn about running a business. In fact, he said he wished he’d started training earlier. His son, who is 12, accompanies him to lunch meetings and to the bank and golf course.

“I learned from my mother and uncle not to waste learning opportunities,” he said.

Small tribe with extensive business interests

San Diego County is home to 18 Native American tribes, out of which 13 are Kumeyaay bands. The Sycuan band is one of the smallest, with 130 members.

The Sycuan Casino is an economic powerhouse for the tribe, and its success has helped the tribe expand its business to other areas, by setting up STDC in 2002.

The tribe oversees the casino -- which is separate from STDC -- and Quiroga would not comment on the casino’s operations, for which he’d need to seek the tribal council’s permission.

For the corporation, real estate represents 80 percent of its business and is worth about $200 million.

One of the first acquisitions for STDC was the Singing Hills Country Club and Resort in 2001, now renamed Sycuan Resort. It’s reputed to be one of the best golf resorts in Southern California and has been voted No.1 by locals in a San Diego Union-Tribune readers poll. It has two 18-hole courses, a beginner’s executive course and 100 hotel rooms with full amenities, and is located five minutes from the casino.

Quiroga was 23 years old and working with the insurance program when the resort was acquired, and he recalled the deal being a learning point in his career. The acquisition also won support from the tribe’s members, since it returned land that once used to be part of Kumeyaay territory to them.

“There used to be a Kumeyaay village where the tennis courts are now. That’s where they ground corn,” Quiroga said.

A map shows the ancestral homeland of the Kumeyaay nation, before European encroachment occured in the late 1700s (right). The left portion of the map shows the modern locations of 17 Kumeyaay reservations. The Sycuan people have lived in the San Diego area for 12,000 years. Image courtesy Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation.

The next step in diversification was to form a partnership with two other groups in 2003 to develop the Marina Gateway project in National City, a $25 million venture to build a 174-room hotel, restaurant and commercial retail space.

It’s part of National City’s efforts to revitalize its waterfront from an industrial area to a recreational and retail hub, and was completed two years ago.

The Marina Gateway project is next to a marsh area with birds and wildlife, so one of the challenges in developing it was complying with the requirements from the Department of Fish and Game and completing the environmental impact report.

“That was fun to deal with,” Quiroga said, tongue-in-cheek. The area used to be part of a burn site, so it needed remediation and a detailed environmental report.

The project was nearing completion when the economy tanked in 2008.

“We learned about doing business during the downside then. You can’t anticipate some things, like how long the recession has lasted,” Quiroga said, explaining how it was harder to get tenants.

Return to downtown

It was a busy year in 2003 for STDC, which bought the US Grant hotel, built by the son of former President Ulysses Grant in his memory in 1910. After spending $54 million renovating it, the corporation leased the hotel to Starwood Hotels & Resorts (NYSE: HOT).

“Outside of the casino, the Grant is the biggest real estate deal for us. I was treasurer and board member when these deals were put together,” Quiroga recalled.

STDC was approached when the US Grant was up for sale. It was an opportunity to own a historic hotel and for the tribe to return to the downtown area. The Kumeyaay territory originally stretched from the coast to Tijuana, before the tribe was pushed back to the mountains in what is now East County.

Quiroga said buying the US Grant opened new doors for the tribe, into the real estate in the hospitality industry.

The historic US Grant Hotel, which the Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation purchased in 2003. Photo courtesy Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation

“The tribal board got involved,” he said. “Renovating a historic hotel was a learning experience for us.”

And it was a nice chunk of real estate to own downtown.

“Very nice chunk. You should visit,” Quiroga laughed.

STDC then teamed up with JMI Realty and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants to build a boutique hotel in downtown San Diego, the Hotel Solamar, a hip luxury hotel just one block from Petco Park.

“The Grant was a big commitment in 2003, but we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be involved in developing Solamar, so we scaled back our involvement to the ground lease and financial investment,” Quiroga said.

When assessing potential partners for new projects, STDC looks at their finances, whether they have a clear concept of how to approach the project and whether they mesh with the tribe’s values.

Once evaluation is completed, it puts the proposal before the general council for approval.

The tribe is frequently approached with business offers. Going forward, Quiroga said they are currently looking at diversifying and developing more commercial properties.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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