Pueblo of Isleta’s economic development efforts paying off

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Like many tribal entities, especially those in the state of New Mexico, gaming put the Pueblo of Isleta on the economic development track. In fact, Isleta brought the first Indian bingo facility to the state in the 1980s.

“We were otherwise dependent on natural resources,” said Pueblo of Isleta Governor Robert Benavides, who was elected in 2005. “Gaming has been good for all the tribes here – it creates employment, health care and retirement options for us and non-tribal employees.”

Since then, the pueblo’s economic development efforts have moved far beyond the bingo hall. A multi-story casino now sits next to the bowling alley and video game arcade that replaced the building the bingo hall occupied. Some 2,000 employees work in ventures including a golf course, recreational parks, lakes and RV campground, health clinic, educational buildings, convenience stores and gas stations.

Former Isleta Resort and Casino General Manager Rodney Ferguson was quoted in a press release about the new 200-room resort and spa that opened in July 2008, “This hotel is an important part of our plan to build a true destination resort. Soon we’ll have people from all over the U.S. coming to enjoy our many diverse entertainment and recreation facilities for days or weeks at a time.”

The goal was to attract conventions and vacationers to the area, and encourage them to use the golf course and other facilities.

Each of the spokes on the revenue hub are overseen and managed by the pueblo’s tribal council. “It would be nice if we had separate boards or a corporation,” Benavides said. “It’s been talked about, because we think it’s becoming necessary, especially when we talk about the number of businesses at the pueblo.”

Isleta means “little island” in Spanish, though Isleta hardly qualifies as small, with 211,002 acres and a population greater than 3,000. It’s also the largest farming pueblo in New Mexico because the Rio Grande runs through it, providing fertile soil and an accessible water table.

The overarching aim of all the pueblo’s businesses is to provide for the people and improve their lives. Building infrastructure like water and sewage treatment plants, opening educational opportunities through scholarship programs and ensuring the future health care and housing needs of tribal members is paramount.

“Education is very important to us,” Benavides said. “We set up a head start facility that’s one of the finest and well-built in the state in 2001/2002. Since I’ve been governor, we’ve built a state-of-the-art kindergarten through sixth grade school. And for our young people who want to go to college, we pay for tuition, fees and housing wherever they want to go through a scholarship process.”

To enhance the championship 27-hole Isleta Eagle golf course, the pueblo recently added a clubhouse. The Isleta Lakes Recreational Complex, with year-round fishing, picnicking and campsites, also received a complete makeover to create one of the amenities for RVers in the Albuquerque area with a store, laundry and showers.

Isleta Fun Connection laser tag, billiards and video arcade complements the Brunswick-installed bowling alley in the original bingo hall. “We wanted something family friendly, entertainment oriented and safe,” Benavides said. “The building has a party room for celebrations and snack bar.”

Benavides estimates that 60 percent of the tribe’s revenue comes from casino gaming. He points to the other businesses as extremely important, though, because they enable the community to be able to work on infrastructure.

Planning that infrastructure is the job of Simon Shima, who came to the pueblo as chief tribal planner three years ago after experience as a city planner in San Diego.

“The tribal government is in the process of streamlining its organization, trying to centralize many offices into one location,” Shima said. “Some of the money for this 60,000-square-foot facility, which will house the tribal police, fire and courts, is coming from the state of New Mexico, but the majority of the $20 million is from the pueblo’s economic development efforts.”

Shima said a significant amount of money will go into infrastructure in the future. Part of that will be to upgrade sewage and water treatment plants, especially in the traditional village center. In this area, water lines must be upgraded to accommodate a new library and long term care/elder care building.

Also in this area, a new housing development project is planned within the next three years that will serve two purposes. First, the immediate need for new housing for moderate and low income tribal members will be met. Second, the 20 new housing units will use a new construction material called lava block that uses lava cinder mixed with cement. One of the pueblo’s natural resources is this lava cinder, which could eventually become a new revenue stream.

To take advantage of its location between Albuquerque and the growing bedroom communities of Bosque Farms, Los Lunas and Belen, the pueblo is in discussions with state and federal entities to construct an interchange on Interstate 25, which cuts through the tribe’s land. The pueblo has designated 500 acres for future economic development efforts at this proposed interchange, and is preparing a feasibility study for what kinds of amenities would be good there.

One of the tribal council’s goals is to improve the major thoroughfares through the pueblo. A recent study made clear that Isleta’s roads should be improved to enhance safety and economic development. Recently completed is Isleta’s commuter railroad station for the regional New Mexico Rail Runner Express train that runs between Santa Fe to the north and Belen about 120 miles to the south.

A project that will have an indirect impact on economic development is the thinning trees in wildfire prone pueblo lands in the Manzano Mountains, and removing non-native plants in the tribe’s section of the Rio Grande Bosque cottonwood forest. Many plants in both areas are used for traditional purposes, and the pueblo harvests lumber and other natural resources from these areas.

Benavides points to these aspects as necessary parts of economic development. “Casinos could have short lifespans, so we need other ways to bring money in. Natural resources are key; sand and gravel, trees, basalt, lava cinder. We’re also working with Public Service Company of New Mexico on the possibility of an electricity generating plant, for renewable energy, maybe a refinery and even oil exploration. There is so much that can contribute to the tribe.”

Developing sound feasibility for any project is always a challenge, said Shima, but reaching out to the community is one way to garner buy in. “The two gas stations bring in a lot of money because people needed them. The commuter rail station will be good for our neighbors and the Isleta people, too. We host meetings here with mayors, regional and state commissions and planners to form relationships. We want to support the development going on in surrounding communities.”

Communicating with neighbors at all levels is advice that Benavides seconds. “If you’re going to get things done, you have to set goals, and that includes talking with the state legislature, the federal government and the communities around you. Good relationships are necessary to succeed. Don’t try to do things on your own. Leaders like to see tribal leaders, but you have to be there for them, too. It’s about sharing ideas; your needs affect others, not just yourselves as Indian peoples.”