By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange
As the likely closures of the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine brings increasing economic uncertainty to the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon region, an economic development project that could permanently reshape the area has resurfaced.
Project components on the 420-acre site in the western sector of the Navajo reservation include the Escalade – a gondola tramway from the Canyon rim to a location on the Colorado River, a Riverwalk sightseeing experience, a Discovery Center for recreation and cultural entertainment, exhibit and sales areas for local crafts and artists, and lease sites for hotels and other services.
Development in the area was prohibited in 1966 following a series of land disputes between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. That prohibition was lifted in 2009.
According to a recent, extensive report by the Arizona Republic, developer Lamar Whitmer first proposed the idea along with Navajo Nation President Albert Hale. After the development moratorium was lifted, extensive plans were assembled by Confluence Partners, LLC, the development company created for the project. Most of the planning and conceptual documents on the project website date to 2012, and project representatives have been working to sell the idea to tribe members ever since.
The Republic quotes Whitmer as saying the tram is essential to bringing tourism and its associated revenue to the area, which abuts Grand Canyon National Park’s eastern border. He claims the scenic vista by itself isn’t enough to compete with Grand Canyon West’s Skywalk or the park itself. Approximately one million tourists visit the Skywalk each year, and the park itself draws around six million. There is nearly no tourism currently in the area covered by the Escalade proposal.
The tram, if constructed, would be approximately 1.6 miles long and descend more than 3,000 feet into the Canyon. Developments in support of the tram, including the discovery center and retail components, would follow.
Despite the appeal of tourist revenue to help offset the losses expected by the closure of the generating station and the likely closing of the Kayenta Mine that supports it, many Navajo oppose developing the site. They are joined by several conservation groups, as well as the Hopi and other tribal groups.
In addition to developing the largely traditionally-used land, opponents question the nature of the proposal itself. The Navajo would have to put up the initial $65M for the project. According to the Republic article, Confluence Partners could raise the money if the tribe cannot, but the tribe would then be obligated for the interest and a 10 percent fee.
However, the tribe would receive between 8 and 18 percent of any profits from the project. An exclusivity agreement would ensure no one else built any businesses within 15 miles, and the tribe would be obligated to a 25-year commitment.
The consideration bill still faces many hurdles, including the acquisition of grazing leases. Many lease holders have expressed opposition to the plan. There is also the near-certainty of lawsuits from a range of stakeholders and interested parties.
However, the developers continue to drive the points of the project’s potential as both a conduit for cultural preservation and as an economic lifeline.
Regardless of Monday’s vote, neither the project nor its associated issues will be going away any time soon.
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