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Ak-Chin Airport: Where Successful Business Takes Off

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Arizona’s Ak-Chin Indian Community have long been tillers of the soil with about three quarters of their reservation—some 16,000 acres—under agricultural irrigation. Now the Tohono O’odham and Pima are taking to the sky with the dedication of the Ak-Chin Regional Airport in Maricopa, Arizona—the slogan: Where Successful Business Takes Off.

“It’s taken nearly 6 years to get to this point, but the first phase of renovation of the old Phoenix Regional Airport is a milestone, another opportunity for growth that will open other doors for future development,” said Tribal Chairman Louis Manuel, Jr. “When we envisioned this project, we knew there were many factors that had to be taken into consideration. It was like dominoes all lined up and you had to wait for one to fall before you moved on to the next one.”

Initial improvements included repaving the 5,000-foot runway/taxiway where Property Manager Phil Entz said there were eight-inch cracks that made it a bit difficult for planes to land. “We completed a Fixed Base Operations building; renovated the runway, taxiway and aprons; brought all the markings up to FAA standards; and added fencing to keep people and vehicles off the runway at a cost of $1.2 million—and already it’s starting to pay off.”

Lee Allen

Tumbleweeds drift against Ak-Chin Regional Airport fences

Intended as an adjunct to the tribe’s nearby industrial park (Santa Cruz Commerce Center), the 450-acre airport complex is already generating revenue. “We’re getting touch-and-go training flights because flight schools can practice here outside the busy Phoenix air space.”

Entz says that while current orientation involves industrial needs, “We hope to soon be able to allow private aircraft owners to fly here, tie down and shuttle to the tribe’s casino/hotel/entertainment center [Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino & Resort], and then fly home. Further down the line, we’re hoping for an opportunity to add things like charters and an ability to attract turboprop aircrafts as well as inviting new airplane-connected businesses [like the existing Desert Rat Aviation and Alpha Tech Coatings operations] that would negotiate through-the-fence access to the runway.”

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But first, step one: a December 14 open house well attended by tribal members, Bureau of Indian Affairs dignitaries, aviation companies and business VIPs. “The tribe is still focused on our agricultural agenda, but the airport is a sign we’re moving with the times and taking advantage of other options to generate revenue,” said Ak-Chin Industrial Park Board Chairman Charles Carlyle. 

With two interstate highways nearby, two state routes that run through the area, and Amtrak trains that visit regularly, the aerial addition is a welcome one. “We’re away from developed areas because airports can be noisy—but noise means money for our community and for surrounding area businesses,” added Carlyle.

“Today means there’s a better tomorrow,” noted Community Council member Terry Enos. “We’ve been talking about this for years, wondering when we were going to get this done and now’s the time. We have to think about the future. We want to provide opportunities not only for our Native American community, but neighboring communities as well. Not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Fellow councilmember Vice Chair William Antone likened the initial restoration phase to dropping a stone into a pond and watching the ripple effect. “It’s like everything we do, we continue to look forward to other economic development that will make the tribe more sustainable in the generations to come,” he said.

The party decorations had no sooner been put away than focus turned to the next stage of renovation. “Although the items are not yet set in stone, we’re looking to hire an airport manager as well as discussing incremental additional infrastructure capacity necessary for runway lighting, an extended apron with more tie-downs and adding Jet A fuel capabilities…another million dollars worth of improvements,” added Entz.

“All the needed funding won’t have to come directly from the tribe’s pocketbook,” said Carlyle in announcing that the Ak-Chin Indian Community had been accepted into a Federal Aviation Administration program that gives grant money to assist in the fix-up of neglected airports. 

In addition to its new airport facilities and existing agricultural activities, the Ak-Chin community is further diversified for development and sustainability from its casino/hotel, a newly built family entertainment complex, the Southern Dunes Golf Club, a market, and its industrial park.

Not bad for a community of less than 900 residing tribal members who already represent an annual economic impact of more than $450,000.