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Navajo Council approves funding of casino development

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By Felicia Fonseca -- Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Navajo Nation is on track to have its first casino built by next summer.

The Tribal Council voted 54 - 25 Oct. 22 in favor of a $100 million line of credit to fund casino development. The tribe secured the credit line earlier this year from JP Morgan Chase.

''I think we're heading in the right direction,'' Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said after the council's vote in Window Rock, Ariz. ''I can't wait to see the first casino go up.''

The council tabled the credit line in September and subsequently held a work session to address delegates' concerns over what some said was a huge financial risk.

Shirley has since urged the council to speed up its approval of the measure.

''Every day that we delay approval of the legislation, our nation loses the opportunity to provide essential services, create good paying jobs and to improve the standard of living for many of our citizens,'' he said.

Delegate Ervin Keeswood, who voted against the credit line, said he generally supported the document but had a few concerns. Those included a term of the agreement that states the tribe would have to ask for permission from JP Morgan if it wanted to borrow money for other development projects.

''The nation should decide what it wants to do with approval from a bank,'' Keeswood said.

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The measure was brought up Oct. 22 as emergency legislation during a special session. Members of the Budget and Finance Committee, where it was sent after the work session, said concerns over interest rates and other complex issues were not adequately addressed.

''Budget and Finance was assigned to flush those things out, but council decided in this legislation not to do that,'' said committee member Lorenzo Curley.

With the council's approval, the tribe now can put engineering and design contracts out to bid for the casinos.

''We can begin to move forward on all things needed to put a shovel into the ground,'' said Navajo gaming chief Bob Winter.

The credit line allows the tribe to draw down small amounts, instead of receiving a lump sum, and pay only interest on that for the first two years.

Under terms of the agreement, the tribe would provide security for the amount borrowed with liquid assets. The lender could not take Navajo land or real estate if the tribe defaults on a loan - a concern expressed by some delegates, Shirley said.

Shirley has said the tribe's first casino - a temporary building planned near Gallup - will gross nearly $32 million in its first year. A second casino planned near Flagstaff, Ariz., is projected to gross $46.5 million in its first year, he said.

Several Arizona tribes also are interested in leasing surplus slot machines from the Navajo Nation in a pooling agreement worth nearly $60 million, Shirley said.

At least half of the tribe's work force is without jobs, and Shirley said the revenue from casinos desperately is needed.

''It's about time we start giving them jobs, and then of course the Navajo Nation government is needing revenue all the time,'' he said.