The Gila River Indian Community’s newfound wealth has found its way to a senior meals program in Scottsdale, a fire station in Guadalupe, a crisis negotiations center in Chandler and a day care center in Mesa.
Those municipalities and 12 others were the recipients of $2.5 million in gifts from the Gila River community in 2006 alone, according to the Gila River Indian News.
The gifts, given as part of the state’s gaming compact with the Gila River community, represent more than largess. Combined with greater control over the state’s land and water resources, they are helping to build the community’s clout throughout the state.
Ultimately, contributions are a tool for community to be able to distribute some of its success locally and share with neighbors, said Jacob Moore, former legislative liaison for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community and now owner of his own consulting firm, Generation Seven Strategic Partners.
Making contributions also helps the Gila River community politically, Moore said.
They help the tribes “play catch-up to be on a level playing field as their surrounding communities.”
Under the state’s gaming contracts, tribes must pay a portion of their gaming revenue to the state. But tribes can direct 12 percent of that money to specific communities or projects. In 2005, that totaled $10.62 million in gifts, according to the Arizona Department of Gaming.
The money has gone to projects in Scottsdale, Tempe, Gilbert, Florence, Queen Creek, Mesa, Phoenix, Maricopa, Peoria, Avondale and Tolleson for everything from fire safety and traffic enforcement programs to senior meals and childhood literacy programs.
Gila River community revenue has even paid for an electronic fingerprinting system for Apache Junction.
Money helps cultivate relationships and political alliances, and Moore said money changes political perceptions. Before, when tribes ran deficits, they were viewed as “the federal government’s problem,” and the state and surrounding communities had little to do with them.
Now, those same communities are going to the tribes for support.
FATE OF LOOP 202
The tribe’s growing political muscle can be seen in the debate over where to build the South Mountain Freeway stretch of Loop 202.
The Gila River community is part of the 33-member Maricopa Association of Governments, which also includes representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Citizens Transportation Oversight Committee and Maricopa County as well as all cities and other reservations within the county. It is involved in all major decisions involving regional transportation, air quality, water quality, development and human services.
It also is a key player in planning for the 22-mile $1.7 billion South Mountain Freeway.
One proposed path is along Pecos Road in Ahwatukee Foothills. But that would require razing about 250 homes, so others have proposed the freeway be built on undeveloped reservation land.
The Gila River community rejected that idea in a resolution passed by the tribal council several years ago. But in November, the council reconsidered and created a transportation team.
The freeway would open the reservation for substantial new economic development, supporters say. But residents of the community’s District 6, where the freeway path would run, do not want it, said Richard Narcia, former Gila River community governor.
Unless they change their minds, the project will not be built on reservation land.
That puts the tribes in a powerful position, said Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn, whose city shares its entire southern border with the Gila River community.
“They are in a position to decide what they want,” he said. “And the rest of the Valley will have to live with it.”
Gone are the days when the reservations could be ignored.
“Surrounding communities realize we need to work with the Gila River Indian Community for future development,” Dunn said.
The Gila River community isn’t alone in wielding such power. The neighboring Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community exercises similar clout along its western boundary with Scottsdale.
Already, the Salt River community houses the Pavilions, 140 acres of retail stores including Target, Home Depot and Best Buy. According to Salt River’s Web site, the Pavilions is “the nation’s largest commercial development ever built on Indian land.”
And despite disagreements in the past over development along Loop 101’s Pima Freeway leg, the tribes and Scottsdale officials recently indicated they’re ready to move ahead with a plan that would bring substantial new commercial growth to the area over the next several decades.
Moore said Gila River should “look at the alternative of taking Salt River’s position, that maybe there are some advantages” to embracing such large-scale development.
The historic Arizona Water Settlements Act, which gives the Gila River community control over a large portion of the state’s water, means that Arizona’s communities also will have to deal with the Gila River tribes for water.
The water act, approved by the federal government last year after more than 15 years of negotiations, governs allocation of Central Arizona Project water. It gives 47 percent of the water to Indian uses and 53 percent to non-Indian uses.
The Gila River community controls 653,500 acre-feet of water annually. An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water, roughly the amount a family of four uses in a year.
“The act authorizes expenditures to ensure that the tribe can develop its water as an economic resource,” said Gregg Houtz, deputy counsel of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
That means the Gila River tribes can lease Central Arizona Project water, which could bring in millions of dollars annually. About 40,000 acre feet is expected to be leased back to surrounding cities annually, creating long-term relationships through 100-year water contracts.
On the reservation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is building a $400 million distribution system to deliver the water to farms. The water will allow irrigation of 148,000 acres, or nearly half the 373,000-acre reservation, Narcia said.
Houtz said the Gila River tribes were aggressive in pursuit of water rights.
According to news media reports, the community paid $9.16 million to an international lobbying firm — Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld — to help negotiate the settlement. The firm has represented companies such as AT&T and Exxon Mobil.
“It’s an attitude of not waiting to be asked, but going and knocking on the door,” Houtz said.