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Navajo Proposed 'Grand Canyon Escalade' to Transport Visitors to the Canyon Floor

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If a proposed tourism project dubbed the "Grand Canyon Escalade" takes off, visitors could descend in a gondola tramway to traverse the bottom of the Grand Canyon. From the Canyon floor, they could stroll on the 1,400-foot elevated "Riverwalk," dine at the Confluence Restaurant, or watch performances at the Amphitheater from its terraced grass seating area overlooking the Colorado River, reported the Navajo-Hopi Observer. The trip would begin on the western edge of the Navajo Nation Reservation above where the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River converge—a place known as the Confluence and considered sacred to the Hopi, the Navajo and other tribes. That's actually where the majority of the development would be located—above the rim and encircling a one-way loop road that would surround a 1,200-space public parking lot. Pedestrians would walk beneath the slightly elevated loop road through underpasses to get to the retail shops, hotel, motels/lodges, RV park, restaurants, administration offices, a public safety building and a gas station/convenience store. The development would also feature a Navajo Cultural Center and an "Artist in Residency" program to integrate American Indian artwork into the art galleries and retail stores. The Center's main exhibit would highlight Navajo culture and history, including exhibits dedicated to the Code Talkers and The Long Walk. Other tribal art could be featured in traveling exhibits from other museums. In addition, certain areas would be restricted to tribal members only. The project is a joint partnership between the Navajo Nation and the Phoenix-based development group Confluence Partners, LLC. R. Lamar Whitmer, a Confluence founding partner, gave birth to the idea in 1997 and has been working ever since to bring his vision to life. He told the Navajo-Hopi Observer he intends for the project "to have an inter-tribal experience to capture the art and overall culture of Native American life." Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Confluence Partners signed a memorandum of understanding on February 17. Under the agreement, the Navajo Nation will provide all off-site infrastructure, including power, water, sewer, gas, roads, and telecomm. Escalade, LLC, a limited liability company managed by Confluence, will cover all on-site development. Phase one is projected to cost roughly $120 million. Total off- and on-site construction is estimated to take between 12 to 18 months with a projected opening day in spring of 2015. A five-member stakeholders group, appointed by Shelly, will assist the tribe in negotiations and ensure the concerns of local residents are addressed. But the group has yet to consult the Hopi Tribe, the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, or the National Park Service. Deswood Tome, special advisor to Shelly and a member of the stakeholders group, said his job "is to get the infrastructure going for this. I've had meetings with the Navajo Division of Transportation, the Navajo Hopi Land Commission Office, the community, and individual meetings where I sit down and explain what we're planning." According to Tome, the project presents the opportunity to repair a 1.5-million acre area around Tuba City forced into neglect by the Bennett Freeze, disputed land where the Hopi and Navajo both claimed ownership. Until the Freeze was lifted in 2009 after 40 years, people couldn’t even build homes. Now, residents are starting to move back into the area. "This is an opportunity to rehabilitate this area with housing, with infrastructure, and with everything else we're planning to develop," said Tome. "So we're accomplishing two ends with this. And the Navajo is going to make the money back, and more, from this venture." Other advantages: the Navajo Nation anticipates receiving an estimated $50 to $95 million in revenue annually, and the project is expected to create 2,000 jobs after build-out, in addition to hundreds of construction jobs. (It has been proposed one third of the Navajo's revenue go toward rehabilitating the Bennett Freeze area.) But concerns about the proposed development have arisen from both Navajo and non-Navajo neighbors. The Hopi Tribe has strongly objected to the project on the basis that it could potentially interfere with the Hopi Salt Trail leading to the Colorado River and disturb their Sipapuni, or place of emergence. “Sipapuni and the Confluence are some of the most sacred areas to the Hopi people,” Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi cultural preservation officer, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The tramway goes right into the heart of the Hopi Nation. It can’t happen. That’s all I can say to the Navajo Nation: you can’t do it.” According to Whitmer, no Hopi sacred sites will be affected at all. Confluence even plans to have sacred areas blocked off with a fence and security. Read more about the concerns of the Hopi, other tribal members and the Grand Canyon National Park in ICTMN's articleNavajo's Planned Grand Canyon Development Draws Concerns.

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