PUEBLO PINTADO — The tanks are all empty.
In the past year, residents of Pueblo Pintado, an isolated Navajo Nation chapter near Crownpoint, have been without easy access to groceries and gasoline, but relief is finally in sight.
The Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company and Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, which produces Navajo Pride products, will reopen Pueblo Pintado's gas station and convenience store.
Something as simple as a gas station has the potential to transform this area where unemployment is high and distances between destinations are vast.
Pueblo Pintado residents gathered at the station, off Indian Service Route 9, at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday with anticipation. They were in time for a grand opening celebration but they will have to wait a little longer for the gas.
"People that have limited income, it had to be hard on them," said Valerie Tapaha, a teacher at Tse'Ye'Gai High School in Pueblo Pintado. "The store is convenient if you need something right then and there."
Although there is another store in town, items are often too expensive for locals to afford, Tapaha said.
Being cut off from gasoline, however, was the greatest hardship, she said.
"You really had to conserve gas," Tapaha said. "There's people who travel for work. That's really hard on them. Students in athletics had to be picked up. Some of them stopped going to practices because they couldn't afford gas."
The high school's student body comes from a roughly 30 mile radius around Pueblo Pintado, she said.
"They had to bring a truck with a big tank for the school buses," Tapaha said. "Otherwise, they'd have to go to Crownpoint, (a 44-mile drive)."
The store will open for business next week and the station will open in three to three-an-a-half weeks, said Lynette Willie, public relations manager for the oil and gas company.
Company personnel are retrofitting the station's tanks to meet environmental standards, Willie said.
The reality for residents, in the mean time, is bleak, but officials hope the project will spur economic development in the region.
"There's no gas pumps around here," said Leonard Tsosie, Navajo Nation Council Delegate for Pueblo Pintado and other communities. "You go 90 miles to get gas. This is Navajo people designing and planning (the project) ... The hope is that all of this will turn into a bigger enterprise."
Oil and gas company CEO, Robert Joe, said the project cost more than $300,000 including in-kind services provided by gas company employees, but did not have an exact figure available Tuesday morning.
The gas station and store could serve as an economic anchor for future economic development, said Russell Begaye, Council Delegate for Shiprock.
And that anchor could be increasingly important in rural communities such as Pueblo Pintado where the unemployment rate is about 80 percent, he said.
"This type of business is what we need," Begaye said. "This is a Navajo-owned corporation. It's not owned from the outside."
The store will help to serve the community's immediate needs for food and supplies, said New Mexico Senator Benny Shendo, Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo.
"It carries a lot more than your typical convenience store," Shendo said. "It is exciting for the Navajo People to take ownership of this."
Residents say they hope the store and gas station last, and that facing another period without access to gasoline could be too much to bear.
"People were actually hitchhiking for gas," said Yolanda Perry, a Pueblo Pintado resident. "We actually had to. It was awful knowing that we didn't have a resource nearby that we could rely on. It's going to make a big difference for all of us. There's finally relief."
But for some residents, Tuesday morning's excitement soon turned to consternation.
The tanks were all empty. The store -- closed.
"Many residents were here since 8 a.m.," Perry said. "A lot of people thought they'd be able to buy gas and food. They came here on empty tanks. They're saying they might not be able to make it back home."