Navajo Nation seeks Promise Zone designation

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps speaks on Jan. 28 during the tribal council's winter legislative session at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

FARMINGTON — A Navajo lawmaker is seeking authorization for the Navajo Nation to submit an application in the hopes of receiving a Promise Zone designation.

The Promise Zone is a federal initiative the Obama Administration started in 2013 that focuses on people who live in high poverty in urban, rural and tribal communities.

Under the program, the federal government partners with local leaders to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, leverage private investment, reduce violent crime, enhance public health and address other priorities identified by the community.

In December, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro announced that the application process was open for the third and final round competition. The deadline to submit an application is Feb. 23.

Twenty Promise Zone designations will be made by the end of the year, according to the USDA.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps speaks on Jan. 28 during the Tribal Council's winter session at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

The tribe's interest in applying for the designation was mentioned in Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye's State of the Nation during the Navajo Nation Council's winter session in January.

In the written report, Begaye mentioned that Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint is taking the lead in completing the application on the tribe's behalf.

NTU President Elmer Guy said in a telephone interview on Monday that this is the second year the university has worked with tribal division directors to submit an application for a Promise Zone designation. The tribe applied for the designation last year when President Ben Shelly was in office but was denied.

As part of the application process, applicants can address up to six areas of focus.

Guy said the Navajo Nation is focusing on job creation, increasing economic opportunity, improving educational opportunities, reducing violent crime, promoting access to health care and increasing affordable housing.

"We are all coming together to make a difference," he said.

A Promise Zone designation lasts for 10 years. One of the benefits is that designated communities are given priority when applying for federal grants, Guy said.

Delegate Walter Phelps, who represents the chapters of Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Leupp, Tolani Lake and Tsídii To’ii in Arizona, is sponsoring the bill, which was assigned to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee, where final authority rests.

Phelps said the committee is being asked to issue a resolution that shows the tribe's support for the designation. The resolution would be attached to the application.

"The designation is something very positive," Phelps said, adding it could help secure grants to rehabilitate communities like those in the former Bennett Freeze area in Arizona.

The bill states it is in "the best interest" of the tribe to submit an application for the designation, which would result in "support, benefits and other beneficial programs."

The Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. As of Monday, a proposed schedule was not available.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.