Delegates support funding casino travel center

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON — Members of the Navajo Nation Council approved a bill during the summer session to provide $10 million to develop a travel center at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort in Arizona.

Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise CEO Derrick Watchman, left, and Delegate Leonard Tsosie present a bill to fund a travel center at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort on Wednesday during a session of the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock, Ariz.

The funding would be in the form of grants and a loan to the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. The money would come from the Síhasin Fund, a special fund developed for the $554 million settlement the tribe received from the federal government in 2014.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the bill and serves as the Síhasin Subcommittee chairman, presented the bill during the summer session on Wednesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

"The Síhasin subcommittee has looked at this and has endorsed it and is willing to work to try to bring this forth," Tsosie said.

Among the benefits the travel center would offer are jobs and revenue to the tribe, he said.

He added countless individuals who attend conferences at Twin Arrows drive to Flagstaff to purchase fuel, which he called "kind of embarrassing."

Twin Arrows is located along Interstate 40, approximately 25 miles east of Flagstaff.

"Despite our view on gaming, it has been determined a long time ago a gaming venture would be part of the economic package of the Navajo Nation," Tsosie said.

According to the bill, the gaming enterprise would receive $2.5 million for planning, developing and constructing the infrastructure, and $3.5 million to plan, develop and construct the travel center.

A $4 million loan would be provided for the overall construction cost, and the amount would be paid back with interest, in accordance with a loan agreement approved by the Budget and Finance Committee, the bill states.

Derrick Watchman, CEO of the gaming enterprise, said the travel center would offer eight gasoline pumps and eight diesel pumps, and it is part of a plan to develop the Twin Arrows area.

Construction is scheduled to start this summer, and it is tentatively set to open in spring 2017, according to a press release from the speaker's office.

Delegate Nelson BeGaye said he supports the bill's goal because he saw the Hopi Tribe's plan for a similar facility near Twin Arrows.

"I like to say to gaming, 'You've been in business for some time now. I really believe you need to take the leading role in development of Twin Arrows. I challenge you to do that because it you don't do that, what will happen?'" BeGaye said.

Delegate Edmund Yazzie voted against the measure. In remarks to the council, Yazzie questioned the need to help the gaming enterprise when small Navajo business owners need similar help to establish operations on the reservation.

Tribal lawmakers also took action on a number of bill before the session adjourned late Thursday afternoon.

The council passed three bills to authorize supplemental funding requests from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance.

The first bill would provide $340,725 to renovate a modular building used by the Dzil Yijiin District Court in Whippoorwill, Ariz.

Another bill would authorize $148,325 as a grant to the Phoenix Indian Center Inc., and the last bill would provide $207,756 to the Office of Diné Youth to hire high school and college students throughout the year. The office originally requested $610,931, but delegates reduced the amount on Thursday.

Delegates also voted 18-0 to amend a section of the tribe's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

A number of bills were tabled or not considered by the council, and lawmakers did not approve a bill to appoint Melinda Tomchee to the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise Board of Directors.

Delegates voted 11-10 against enacting the Navajo Nation Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act. This act proposed that the tribe oversee regulating surface coal mining, reclamation operations and coal exploration on tribal lands.

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