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Arizona Tribal Casinos Employ More Than State's McDonald's

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Indian governments in Arizona own and operate 23 Las Vegas-style casinos (Class III operations). Of the state’s 22 federally recognized tribes, 16 operate active gaming entities while 5 others lease their slot machine rights to tribes in larger markets. Only one, the Hopi tribe, neither operates a casino nor leases device rights.

The tribal-state compacts make gaming big business in the Grand Canyon State, employing nearly 15,000 residents, an employment figure that ranks above all the McDonald’s in Arizona and places tribal nations in the top ranks of state employers. Compacts have also made possible a substantial amount of peripheral investment. As of 2014, tribal gaming had grown to more than 2,000,000 square feet of gaming space accompanied by nearly 3,300 hotel rooms and some 100 restaurants.

When tribal governments purchased and hired last year, they generated more than $2.5 billion in estimated gross state product including $1.6 billion in labor income. Produced by Taylor Policy Group, an economic/public policy consultant specializing in indigenous community research, the “Economic Impact on Tribal Gaming in Arizona” study found that tribal revenue helped underwrite important statewide programs to the tune of $98 million in fiscal year 2014 or $1.1 billion over the last decade—“net economic benefits, not just transfers from one pocket to another,” according to the report.

“Arizona tribes are rightly proud of the policy goals they’re advancing for themselves and other citizens of the state—jobs, investment, education, healthcare, tourism and wildlife preservation—the whole spectrum,” said survey author Jonathan Taylor.

“Tribal gaming is integral to Arizona’s business community,” said Glenn Hamer, President/CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “With meaningful job creation throughout the state, tribal business represents good business for all of Arizona.”

Despite exponential industry growth over the last 30 years, “There still exists a need for continued opportunity to ensure that tribal nations achieve economic sovereignty,” said Valerie Spicer, Executive Director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association. “We are not merely a commercial industry—our beneficiaries represent entire generations of Indian people.”

Spicer commented on the 5 ways that tribal casinos impact the state:

1) Employment

“Fifteen thousand well paying jobs, induced and indirect, is a lot and a good portion are non-tribal hires that are impactful to the state. Looking at a full state overview, gaming presents a jobs driven economic opportunity especially in rural areas where there is a higher proportion of Native Americans who need those jobs.”

2) Gross State Product

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“There are big numbers and the state as a whole produces something like $30-plus billion dollars while Indian gaming accounts for close to ten percent of that figure. As the study showed, when tribal casinos, non-gaming tribal enterprises, and tribal governments did their hiring and purchasing last year, they generated more than $2.5 billion.”

3) Underwriting State Programs

“When we developed a benefits fund in the last gaming initiative, it was because we wanted to help identify and contribute to critical need areas. At that time, education contributions and funding Level One trauma care and emergency services were priorities as was tourism promotion and we’re a significant part of the Arizona Office of Tourism budget. Another key give-back is the 12% Fund where tribes contribute to local cities and towns around them to help mitigate any impact of gaming on the area, like fire trucks and police uniforms and a host of other things that make a difference for public service entities.”

4) Rural Economic Development

“Outside of the handful of urban areas in Arizona, gaming facilities are critical to rural communities and their economies. In some cases, Indian gaming becomes the largest area employer. Like the Mazatzal Casino in Payson that became the Number One employee when the logging industry closed down. Goods and services need to be purchased and these rural casinos become little hubs of economic generation. Rural tribes also benefit from intertribal transfers of gaming device allocations that have the practical effect of bolstering budgets of remote tribes like Hualapai and Havasupai with revenues from Phoenix and Tucson area operations.”

5) Indian Gaming's Future

“We’ve established our base in Arizona. As the state’s economy stabilize and new growth draws businesses here and tribes continue to diversify, our gaming facilities will thrive and revenues will grow.”

The takeaway from this study for other tribes is a look at one state’s success stories. 

“A lot of investment and hard work is being done involving tribal gaming in Indian Country. Tribal gaming works and it’s doing what Congress and the tribes set out to do, to help with diversification and reliance. We hope other tribes will conduct similar studies of their own to measure where they are, what their impact is, and how they have moved the needle on providing unmet needs.”

AIGA has developed an interactive app specific to the study that will be released at the upcoming AIGA Expo later this month. “It allows leaders and legislators to immediately see what the impact of Indian gaming is in Arizona and what is important to the tribes that help generate it.”