A sophisticated new courthouse in which judges can lock down a courtroom with the push of a button. More than 1,000 new homes. Almost 2,000 new jobs.
These are just some of the things that make up a rising tide of prosperity in the Gila River Indian Community since its first casino opened 12 years ago.
Since then, the reservation south of Chandler and Ahwatukee Foothills has begun to transform from an isolated, dusty reserve to a tourist attraction, cultural center, resort hot spot and a growing political powerhouse for more than 15,000 residents.
“Having grown up on the reservation, I’ve been able to see the transformation,” said Gila River associate judge Anthony Hill. “The economic growth is able to provide conveniences that the non-Indian world takes for granted. The community is building homes, medical centers and day care centers. New water and sewer lines are being constructed. The employment base is growing.
“It’s definitely affected people’s lives and made it better.”
Much of the change can be attributed to the community’s three casinos, which bring in an estimated $26.3 million a year.
But the tribe has not stopped there. Over the past 12 years, the community has diversified its economy by opening or encouraging others to open small businesses, industrial parks, an amusement park, a hospital, a spa and resort, a 36-hole golf course and a cultural center.
The result has been growing economic prosperity for the tribal government and for residents.
Richard Narcia, former Gila River governor, said that before gaming, the community government’s annual budget was about $5 million; afterward it jumped to more than $100 million.
American Indians are doing better on almost every reservation in almost every part of the country. But those with casinos are doing the best.
According to a 10-year study of the nation’s Indians released last year by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, income, populations and human services all have improved across the board for them .
Per capita income, for instance, grew substantially between 1990 and 2000 — even with a 20 percent increase in overall population. Gaming tribes prospered most, with income increasing 36 percent over the 10 years of the study. At the same time, family poverty dropped 11.8 percent.
For the Gila River community, the turnaround began in 1994 when it opened its first casino. Two other casinos followed, the largest of which is Wild Horse Pass — a giant structure of 167,400 square feet crammed with slot machines, a bingo hall, poker, keno and blackjack tables, two delis, a restaurant and a gift shop.
The only other tribe in Arizona with three casinos is the Tohono O’odham Nation in south central Arizona. The other 15 Arizona tribes that sponsor gaming have either one or two facilities, and most have just one.
The Gila River casinos have another advantage few other tribes have: easy access to the booming East Valley cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe.
All told, the Gila River casinos now hold 1,875 Class 3 gaming machines, which are random number-generating machines of the type most commonly found in Las Vegas.
That’s far more than any other tribe in the state. In fact, it represents about 15 percent of all gaming machines in Arizona.
While revenue figures for casinos are not public information because the tribes are sovereign nations, tribes must contribute a portion of their revenue to the state under gaming contracts. Based on those collections, the Arizona Department of Gaming put total gaming revenue in the state last year at $1.79 billion.
Gila River’s casino revenues accounted for approximately 15 percent of the state’s total gaming revenues in 2006.
As of September , nearly 2,000 people were employed at Gila River’s three casino locations, according to the Gila River Indian Community Economic Development Department. Of those, about half were tribal members.
But it is not just the casinos that contribute to tribal prosperity. In all, the community employs almost 5,000 people in a variety of enterprises ranging from farming to billboards and pays out salaries that total more than $100 million annually, according to promotional materials distributed by the tribe.
Next to gaming, one of the reservation’s biggest enterprises is the billboards that line major highways along its borders.
The tribe itself owns 25 billboards along Interstate 10 and Maricopa Road on the eastern edge of the reservation, reaching thousands of commuters from Chandler, Ahwatukee Foothills and Casa Grande daily with messages from Cracker Barrel, RV parks and homebuilders.
Gila River Displays owns another 47 billboards along I-10, state Route 347 and elsewhere in the East Valley. The company used to be a nontribal marketing company, but the tribe took it over in 2002 and now runs it . The company generates more than $1 million a year, according to Shannon Rivers, Gila River Displays manager.
Other enterprises on the reservation include a 16,000-acre farm; Firebird International Raceway; and Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass , a cowboy-themed amusement park and steakhouse, which was relocated to the reservation from Scottsdale in 2005 after the tribe purchased it.
With the money from its casinos and dozens of enterprises, the Gila River community has invested heavily in new public buildings, health care, education, public safety and housing.
For example, the community has built more than 1,000 homes for residents in recent years, according to James Cutter, deputy director of the reservation’s Community Housing Services Department.
Cutter said many people who are living in the new 1,800- to 2,500-square-foot homes used to live in houses that were one-tenth that size. Some lacked basic household appliances. All the new homes have stoves, washing machines and dishwashers, he said.
“I would say it improved (quality of living) by 100 percent,” Cutter said. “Some have never lived in a traditional home.”
Other residents have applied for and received assistance to improve existing homes. One of those is Pat Smith, 69, who has lived on the reservation her entire life and has been in the same house, about 40 miles from Sacaton, for 40 years.
She said she recently got a new porch on her double-wide mobile home and every five years, she gets a new appliance. She has already bought a washing machine and stove. When one of her lights broke, the tribe sent service people to fix it right away.
“I would not get this care if I lived in town,” she said. “I couldn’t live anywhere else and get the service I get here.”
Economic prosperity has not come equally to everyone.
Drive only a mile or so from the casinos, and visitors encounter dirt roads, crumbling houses and vast swaths of undeveloped land — a reminder that although the tribe has gone through major changes, not everything is new.
“Every day, you run into people who can’t pay their electric bill, who live in deplorable conditions, who can’t buy their groceries, who don’t have water — and this is a major sticking point for people in the community,” Hill said. “It’s hard to explain that economic development is good if you don’t see it — if the government is not providing the basic services it should. It’s hard to point out the resort when someone is living in a house with dirt floors.”
Certainly, the statistics are grim: According to the 2000 census, more than 52 percent of community members still lived in poverty, 10 percent of homes still lacked complete plumbing and 28 percent had no telephone service.
Hill said one of the biggest needs is transportation. The reservation is so big — covering more than 600 square miles — that there are large pockets of people who are isolated and have difficulty getting to basic services. He would like to see the community build a transit system, such as bus routes.
“Such a system would provide access to employment centers and government services such as clinics and tribal departments,” he said. “It would bring basic mobility to our people.”
Only 34.2 percent of the community’s children graduated from high school, according to the 2000 census. Fewer than 17 percent went on to college.
The reservation also lacks many other basic services, including parks, libraries, restaurants and stores. There are only a handful of convenience stores, no grocery stores and no restaurants. For these things, tribal members must venture off the reservation to find the amenities most East Valley residents have just down the street.
All of this means that many members “work, shop, learn and recreate off the reservation,” Hill said.
Besides the inconvenience, the result is that “the influence of the non-Indian world has spilled over into the community,” he said.