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Tribal economic development requires vision, persistence

For countless centuries, the people of the Gila River Indian Community — the “River People” of Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh ancestry — farmed alongside the central Arizona riverbanks that give our community its name. Our farming heritage taught my people all about the value of diversification and persistence, two key elements that have guided the renaissance of our community’s economy.

But the key factor driving economic development on our lands has been vision — the ability to see beyond the desert scrub and jackrabbits that once marked the Gila River reservation and to conceive and implement what visitors see today: A development corridor marked by championship golf, high-end gaming, upscale shopping, hospitality, entertainment, fine dining, and a luxurious spa. Today, our community employs thousands of residents of the East and West Valley, and our business interests along the I-10 corridors pump tens of millions of dollars into the economies of cities from Mesa to Chandler, Avondale to Glendale.

Keeping this vision alive from one generation to the next was hardly easy. For decades, our leaders met often with developers, financial institutions and federal officials who failed to see the possibilities we saw. To the naysayers, economic development meant leasing our lands at the lowest possible agricultural rates, because they saw tumbleweeds where we saw the chance to create a humming economic engine. Still, we persisted.

We continue to work hard to change the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ leasing regulations that have stood in the way of self-determination for Indian nations for decades. The feds’ “one size fits all” set of rules and bureaucracy too often hamstrings Indian tribes by failing to acknowledge our unique geographies and government structures. Development requires timing and speed and the ability to take advantage of a dynamic business climate. The federal government is many things, but fast is not one of them. Still, we continue to work within the federal framework to find opportunities that meet our needs and partners who share our economic vision, a future that sees casinos and resorts not as the entire development toolbox, but as one tool among many.

The past year has seen our community open the Phoenix Premium Outlets at Wild Horse Pass and a new, more upscale Vee Quiva Hotel and Casino in the West Valley. Together, these two projects created nearly 1,000 construction jobs and more than 1,100 permanent full- and part-time jobs on the two properties. Both projects provide new, sustained economic growth for our community by expanding our revenue stream — direct revenue and profits from the community-owned businesses, rent from retail tenants and taxes from retail sales and other commercial transactions.

The benefits from this development flow beyond the borders of our community, helping our neighbors in Phoenix and points beyond. By cultivating partnerships with our municipal and state neighbors to capitalize on our collective vision for growth and progress, we have been able to create an ever-expanding critical mass on our lands, not simply development, but destinations, places with their own unique brand of excitement and offerings unlike the rest of the Valley.

Once, people looked across the Gila River reservation and saw only sage and scrub. Our leaders saw something different, a vision that continues to come to fruition. Today, our natural beauty is still there, still respected, honored, protected. But our economy is growing thanks to award-winning properties like the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, treasures like 5 star-5 diamond restaurant Kai, and high-end shopping experiences like Armani, Kate Spade and Movado.

This progress may seem to have happened overnight, but it did not. Our evolving economy is a story written across time, marked by the vision of generations and our persistence as a people.

Gregory Mendoza is the governor of the Gila River Indian Community



  1. We, who believe in the determination of people, applaud your vision and making this a reality for all to enjoy in Arizona. Your properties bring jobs and help the economy grow with new housing development, retail business, entertainment and drawing visitors to our state. I ask, why are tribes attempting to deprive the West valley residents of this same opportunity by not supporting the development of a hotel/casino by the Tohono O’odham tribe. We in the West valley want the same for our communities located a distance from the East valley. We believe that jobs will help stabilize families and build businesses and nourish our neighborhoods to grow.

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