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Navajo Nation Economic Growth Creating Jobs and True Independence

The Navajo Nation still sees a high rate of unemployment but has been thriving in recent years when it comes to economic development.
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The Navajo Nation is a stellar example of what the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago this week was all about. The Nation still has a high rate of unemployment but has been thriving in recent years when it comes to economic development – the first step to breaking the need to rely on the United States government.

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During its first five years of gaming, the Navajo Nation created more than 1,500 jobs, 90 percent of which are held by Navajo employees.

Although it joined gaming 20 years behind other tribes, the Nation’s casino industry is experiencing rapid growth. It opened four casinos in five years, with Twin Arrows Navajo Casino opening its doors near Flagstaff, Arizona, in May to 800 full-time employees and an annual payroll of $34 million.

Construction on a five-story hotel at Twin Arrows is under way, promising more temporary and permanent jobs. Similar upgrades are moving forward at Northern Edge Navajo Casino, which opened in January 2012 in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, with an annual payroll of $12 million and 375 full-time employees.

Each job helps make a dent in the Nation’s 60-percent unemployment rate, Navajo President Ben Shelly said.

“When we create jobs, it has to be jobs that make a sustained difference,” he said. “Jobs need to help people earn wages and make their lives better, while they’re also working on infrastructure for the Nation and training other Navajos. They’re building the economy.”

Shelly, who took office in January 2011, has pushed for economic development across the 27,000-square-mile reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

In August, he attended the grand opening of a data center in Shiprock, New Mexico, which employs a 70-percent Navajo workforce. Negotiations are under way for the tribe to purchase Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona. Shelly in July signed a 25-year lease extension, guaranteeing $42 million per year in payments and protecting existing jobs.

The Nation plans to open a 24-hour solar panel plant in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in mid-September and offer 450 jobs. A second solar panel plant is slated for Iyanbito, New Mexico, and the tribe is eying an agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to develop a shipping facility in Thoreau, New Mexico.

Every small success on the Nation moves it toward greater economic independence, Shelly said. Recent job creation on the reservation coincides with a grimmer picture on the national level, where drastic spending cuts mean loss of jobs and programs.

Shelly called the federal sequester an opportunity for American Indian nations to reduce federal red tape.

“We’re looking at the sequester as a good thing, as a way to cut out some of the bureaucracy and become more independent and sovereign,” he said. “Since we don’t own land, we can’t lure business to the reservation. If we can build and not rely on the federal government, they can get off our back.”

Economic growth for the country’s largest tribe is a combination of successes at the community and tribal levels, said Raymond Etcitty, chief operating officer of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise and former attorney for the Nation’s Division of Economic Development.

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Although it battles a high unemployment rate, the Nation has stability and potential, Etcitty said. Headquartered in Window Rock, Arizona, the tribe’s government comprises three independent branches formed in 1991 to help manage $1 billion in natural resources and ensure leases and royalties stayed local.

“People generally frown on tearing up the land, exploiting the land for oil or coal exploration,” Etcitty said. “However, that allowed us to create our current government system in order to do oil and gas leases.”

This opened the door for the Nation to continue doing business with outside entities, Etcitty said. Increasing industry often means seeking loans from outside sources or signing agreements with established businesses. A stable, independent government is paramount to these negotiations.

“Every time we borrow money or finance something, we need to prove that other entities are working with a real, sovereign government,” Etcitty said.

As it gains independence, the Nation can finance its own endeavors. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is one of 18 enterprises operating on the Nation with independent officers and governing boards, yet majority owned by the Nation.

Although tribal, state and federal governments remain the largest employers on the reservation, Navajo enterprises and private businesses are gaining.

“In the big picture, I think the U.S. is floundering now,” Etcitty said. “Potentially the Navajo Nation is creating more jobs than the U.S., relatively. The Nation on its own in recent years created casino jobs and other industries. It’s looking at buying back the coal company. It could be way better, but at least we’re progressing.”

Much credit may go to the tribal government for industry development, but it starts on the local level, said LoRenzo Bates, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council’s Budget and Finance Committee and a delegate representing six chapters in northwest New Mexico. Bates’ district includes two of the tribe’s four casinos.

Chapters certified under the tribe’s Local Governance Act have the authority to seek out business agreements and keep taxes and revenues local. Under Bates’ direction, the Upper Fruitland Chapter invited gaming officials in for feasibility studies, which later resulted in Northern Edge Navajo Casino.

For a place like Upper Fruitland, located near the border town of Farmington, New Mexico, creation of jobs on the reservation keeps the workforce and revenues in the community, Bates said. However, growing a local economy depends on a chapter’s resources.

“If it does not have the resources to create those jobs, it makes it difficult, almost impossible,” Bates said. More remote chapters rely on government appropriations or sales tax.

Even with its successes, however, the Nation is not creating enough jobs to keep up with its growing population, Bates said. One thing still missing from the reservation is mainstream retail outlets. Navajos who work in retail seek jobs off the reservation.

Bates advocates reviewing all the Nation’s laws to streamline the process of developing and keeping jobs. When it comes to outside industries, too many still shy away from building on Navajo land.

“The Wal-Marts, the Kmarts of the world have little or no desire to deal with Navajo courts and laws,” he said. “They’d just as soon build in border towns because they know Navajos will come.”