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SHEEP SPRINGS — A freezing snowstorm stood no chance of dampening the spirit of the roughly 200 people who on Friday celebrated the opening of a welcome center in Sheep Springs, about 40 miles south of Shiprock.

Seventeen years in the making, the Sheep Springs Visitor Center opened with an official ribbon-cutting and Diné blessing ceremony amid sheets of icy rain and snow.

The $2 million regional project has stalled and sat idle multiple times over the years. It was finished through a collaboration between the Sheep Springs Chapter and the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation and Tourism departments. State funding of $128,000 this year, sponsored by state Sen. John Pinto, D-McKinley and San Juan, helped ensure the center's completion.

The morning featured a posting of colors by the T'ooh haltsoi Veterans, music by the Sweetwater Travelers Singers from Arizona and dancing by the Naats'iilid Dancers from Shiprock. Laberta Redhouse, of Window Rock, Ariz., sang "warm-up" and two-step songs that inspired a dozen or more members to rise to their feet and dance.

The three-building complex will offer travelers along U.S. Highway 491 between Gallup and Shiprock the chance to shop for handmade Navajo arts and crafts, view featured artwork in the center's main gallery, access free Wi-Fi, obtain weather updates and find information on cultural and outdoors attractions in the Navajo Nation.

Albert Damon, Jr., executive director for the Navajo Nation's Division of Economic Development, spoke on behalf of Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who could not attend the ceremony.

"We have big plans for this area," Damon said. "People can bring money here and invest in the Navajo Nation. Certified chapters can engage us for funding. We can do it. If you have big dreams, we can make them real."

Damon invoked a line from President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, fittingly on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.

"'Ask not what your country can do for you,' right?" he said. "We can do it here. We can hold hands and make a better world for all of us."

Tommy L. Sandman, former Sheep Springs chapter president and a commander for the Sheep Springs Veterans group, said the project was a dream of his father, Leonard Sandman, also a former chapter president.

"I remember the groundbreaking back in February of 2004 was on a snowy, cold day like this one, too," Sandman said. "So this is a historic moment. I'm feeling euphoric. This center teaches our people to be self-sufficient, to sell their arts and crafts locally right here. This is a dream of ours and just the beginning."

Arval T. McCabe is the director of the tourism department and took on the project a year ago. He hopes the chapter can take control of the center's day-to-day operations by next summer. McCabe's department will manage the center's operational costs -- $120,000 annually -- until it can transfer responsibility to another entity.

"We're giving chapter officials the opportunity to be owners first," McCabe said. "If not, we would hope to partner with Parks and Recreation, who showed some interest."

In the winter, the center will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. In the summer, it will stay open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, McCabe said.

The Rev. Eugene Thomas of Rough Side of the Mountain Church presented the invocation on Friday. Thomas, a Sheep Springs native, was pleased the center was at last open to the public.

"The way I look at it, a lot of people will be coming out this way and this will make it possible for our local, native art to be sold here, instead of them having to drive all the way to Farmington or other places to sell their work," Thomas said. "It's a fact. They've been waiting a long time."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.

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