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Tohono O’odham Closer to Glendale Casino, Tribes Continue to Fight Ruling

The Interior Department recently gave Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe final permission to convert an island of land in Glendale into reservation land.
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The Interior Department this month gave Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe final permission to convert an island of land it owns in the city of Glendale into reservation land.

The decision does not mean the tribe can operate a metropolitan casino, but it does open the door for future gaming – a door other Phoenix-area tribes hoped would remain closed.

In his July 3 letter to the Tohono O’odham tribe, Kevin K. Washburn, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, said his agency had to approve the tribe’s request to take 54 acres “into trust.” The tribe met the legal requirements of a 1986 law, Washburn wrote, and there were no legal obstacles.

Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. applauded the ruling because it allows the tribe to finally replace lands destroyed decades ago by a federal dam project. The ruling also paves the way for the tribe to build a $600 million hotel and casino near the Arizona Cardinals stadium – though it may take an act of Congress to approve gaming on the land.

Norris did not respond to phone calls for comment, but in a prepared statement he called the ruling a “major step forward.”

The ruling “allows the Nation to move another step closer to benefiting from the United States’ promise to the Nation that we would be able to replace our destroyed reservation lands,” Norris said. “The Nation is eager to move forward to use our replacement land to create thousands of new jobs in the West Valley.”

According to an economic impact statement generated by Spectrum Gaming, the proposed 150,000-square-foot gaming facility would include 50 table games, 25 poker tables, more than 1,000 slot machines and a 1,000-seat bingo hall. The complex also would include a hotel with 480 rooms and 120 suites, five restaurants, a food court, buffet, coffee shop, two bars and a nightclub.

The proposed West Valley Resort is projected to generate 1.2 million visits per year and nearly $300 million in revenue in its third year of operation.

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Predictably, other gaming tribes in the Phoenix metro area are not happy with the Interior Department’s ruling – or the inevitable competition on the horizon. Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, this week planned to testify against the ruling in front of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Enos did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, but a spokesman said she planned to cite the federal Keep the Promise Act of 2013, which prohibits the establishment of casinos on land in the Phoenix area acquired after April 9, 2013.

“The community absolutely disagrees with Washburn’s decision for both legal and policy reasons,” Enos said in a prepared statement.

At the heart of the controversy is the practice of “reservation-shopping” or tribes converting parcels of land – sometimes located great distances away from tribal land – into reservation land in order to operate casinos. The Tohono O’odham tribe’s newly converted land is located more than 100 miles from its land base near the Arizona-Mexico border.

Under the 1986 federal law, the tribe was given $30 million to compensate for the loss of nearly 10,000 acres of reservation land that was flooded by a federal dam project. The same law permitted the tribe to purchase replacement property and have it converted to reservation land.

Yet the land transfer was in limbo for four years as the Interior Department considered whether the Glendale land could be taking into trust. The 1986 law stated that that tribe could buy land where it wanted, but reservation status was only available if the land was not within corporate limits of a city.

In his ruling, Washburn found that Glendale had annexed land around the site, but that the 54 acres owned by the Tohono O’odham tribe had not been incorporated. Further, Washburn found that the Glendale land would support the Nation’s goals of self-sufficiency.

“Such lands have an increased likelihood of being close to a significant population base, which opens the door for significant economic development opportunities across a range of industries,” he wrote.