Richard Narcia says his ancestors were always hospitable to those passing through. The industrious farmers of the Gila River Indian Community were known to stand their ground against Apaches and other tribes to give safe passage through the Arizona Territory to settlers and California Gold Rush followers.
“Our people have embraced others and worked hard to create a better community,” said Narcia, the Gila River governor. “We charge by the night, however, now.”
With Thursday's purchase of Scottsdale's Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse, the once development-shy community is on its way to becoming a major player in the economic development of the East Valley.
While the tribe already boasts a casino, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, a golf club, a 2 1/2-mile replica of the Gila River and Firebird International Raceway, the new Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass — and its 600,000 visitors a year — will mean even more financial clout.
“The leadership of our community has set a vision to develop this area,” Narcia announced to a crowd gathered Thursday on the future site of Rawhide.
A master plan for the 2,400-acre Wild Horse Pass area west of Interstate 10 and south of Ahwatukee Foothills calls for an expanded casino, additional retail and business park development, a 60-room hotel in the faux 1880s Western town and a 200- to 300-room hotel adjacent to the gambling hall.
Financial details of the purchase were not disclosed.
The plans come as no surprise to Tom Rex, research director at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. “As the area expands outward, the tribal lands are actually becoming pretty desirable in terms of their location,” he said. “It seems like the Gila River and Salt River tribes are really making some headway in preparing plans. The Gila tribe has made a lot of ground with casino-resort development there.
“I think the Valley as a whole should probably view it as a positive to keep an attraction like that fairly close in, even though none of the cities will be actually realizing sales-tax revenue from it."
The Gila River community's blueprint is hard to match for some East Valley cities because there are still hundreds of acres for development.
"As we build out as a community, it's going to be tougher and tougher to locate businesses that require a lot of land," said Dave Roderique, Scottsdale's economic vitality director. "We just don't have unlimited resources and land we can offer. We're sorry to see them go, but it's tough to have the Old West ambiance when you are surrounded by red-tile roofs."
Rawhide, known for its gunfight shows, true-to-era dirt roads, Old West storefronts and rodeos, has operated in north Scottsdale for more than three decades. But it may not be the only lucrative tourist attraction that could be headed for Gila River.
Craig Jackson, president of Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction, said he’ll be watching to see what will follow Rawhide to the community.
He would not comment on whether he’s considering a move of his prestigious event from its sometimes-inadequate home, WestWorld of Scottsdale, the city-run special-events venue.
“There’s a lot of land and a lot of money down there,” Jackson said. “Scottsdale should be paying attention. (Rawhide owner) Jerry Hirsch is blazing new ground. Rawhide will be the start of a lot of things going down there.”
Jackson said he believes the days of Scottsdale having a monopoly on prestigious tourism attractions is at an end.
Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross, who moved to the city in 1972, a year after Rawhide opened, said the city's goal is to remain a very desirable, distinct place to visit and live. “We're going to continue creating that environment," she said. "There is enough commerce, enough business to go around for everybody, I believe, to be healthy. We're not going to sit around and worry or be concerned that other communities are successful. We're just going to try to be the very best at what we do, and not be all things to all people."
The Gila River community and its development authority will assume ownership and operation of Rawhide on Feb. 16. Rawhide in Scottsdale will close on Sept. 9, and the new location will open about Nov. 1.
The deal calls for the transfer of the Rawhide name and most of its famous clapboard facades. A new 2,100-foot train ride will be added as well as an American Indian Village adjacent to the town.
The land on which Rawhide is located was sold in June to a development group for $46 million. Soon after, Hirsch publicly requested that communities bid to relocate the operation.
More than 50 from across the Valley, state and even as far away as California, Nevada and New Mexico expressed interest. Nineteen communities submitted formal proposals.
Landowners in Cave Creek and Queen Creek couldn't work out a deal, and neither could Scottsdale, which offered to squeeze Rawhide in on 10 acres at WestWorld. The Gila River site is nine times larger.
"There was room at WestWorld, but there wasn't room for Rawhide," said Vic Ostrow, Rawhide general manager.
The deal took about two months of intense negotiations with the Wild Horse Development Authority — the development arm of the Gila River community. Hirsch said he kept coming back to the Indian community, in part, because of its persistence and business savvy.
"We quickly learned we were dealing with an organization that had a considerable amount of business acumen," he said. "We had a lot of challenges and obstacles, but throughout the process, they kept us going."
Portions of the existing facility, including antiques, the 4,000-capacity pavilion and the rodeo area will be reconstructed at the new location.
Don Antone Sr., former Gila River community governor and chairman of the development authority, said Rawhide should create as many as 300 new jobs for tribal members. He's hopeful more than 90 percent of those employed in developments on the community will be residents. When the tribe struck a deal with Sheraton, the hotel company agreed to train some community members to become managers, he said.
The goal of development is to generate income for health, education and housing needs, Antone said.
“There are tremendous needs in our community, health needs,” he said. “A majority of our people are unfortunately stricken with diabetes.”
- Staff writers Donna Hogan and Paul Giblin contributed to this report.