Officials cite Navajo Blue Travel Plaza as success
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
BÉÉSH HÁÁT’I’ and TSIIZIZII, Ariz.
Taylor Miller said she sees the Navajo Nation as a blank canvas that needs to be painted.
“There’s so much improvement,” said the Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, youngster, a 2018 Duke University graduate. “There’s so much improvement. There are so many things we can do to make the Navajo Nation better and I wanted to be part of it.”
Miller, along with 16 other young people who applied for graduation or who had already graduated from a university, secured an internship with Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise’s “Let’s Build a Business” program last year. Navajo Gaming had called for college students and college graduates to work on the Navajo Blue Travel Plaza, a world-class business next to Twin Arrows Navajo Resort and Casino off Interstate 40 just east of Dook’o’ooslííd-Kinlání.
“I chose to pursue this because one of my dreams was to come back and help the Navajo Nation,” said Miller, who focused on Navajo Blue’s sustainability framework. “I think that obtaining an internship with Navajo Gaming was the perfect opportunity for me.”
Miller said after she graduated from Duke, she returned home to Diné Bikéyah where she secured an internship with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in Shiprock. “One day I got an email from the Navajo scholarship office announcing Navajo Gaming’s Let’s Build a Business program,” she explained. “Immediately, I was intrigued, and I applied right away. I got a call from Mary (West) and I spoke with her and I (became) part of the program.”
The Let’s Build a Business program was created to help Diné college students and graduates collaborate with senior-level mentors in their field of study to not only gain experience, but to create jobs and strengthen Navajo Gaming.
The multimillion-dollar, 9,500-square-foot travel plaza opened to the public on Friday, Sept. 18, with a grand-opening ceremony. The plaza introduces guests to Diné culture and allows them to enjoy an all-new dining and retail experience that can’t be found anywhere along the I-40 corridor, said Brian Parrish, Navajo Gaming’s interim CEO.
“This includes a fire pit to slow-roast premium grade Navajo beef that is prepared in a number of ways to suit your unique tastes and preferences,” Parrish said.
Navajo Blue features premium restrooms such as those in four-diamond-rated resorts, as well as showers and laundry services for truckers; a wide variety of food and beverage selections with an emphasis on all-natural options; a premium coffee bar and fresh baked pastries and other dessert items.
Mary West, executive director of project development, said Pepsi-Cola created the largest beverage station on I-40 between California and Texas. “Yes, 160 beverage choices that you can have,” she explained, adding that the general contractor, Keith Keetso of Rock Gap Engineering, went to extraordinary lengths to hire Diné construction workers in every element of the project.
“We use this program to expand our Navajo priority businesses and that is how we began to work with Rock Gap Engineering and Native Encompass, to name a few,” West said. “In addition, we had other companies that worked with us and took interns into their business and trained them.”
President Jonathan Nez said a total of $2.5 million was spent on planning and development of Navajo Blue’s infrastructure and $3.5 million on construction, totaling $6 million, which was supported by the tribe. “Of course, $4 million for the overall construction of this beautiful facility,” Nez said. “What a beautiful facility that we have here in Twin Arrows.”
Navajo Gaming Enterprise contributed $2 million for site development cost. “So in-kind contribution to make this project a reality,” Nez said. “(And) you know how we do it here on Navajo, there’s always hurdles and there’s always challenges to get construction done.”
Former Whitehorse Lake council delegate Leonard Tsosie said the money came from the $554 million trust management settlement funds that the Nation received in 2014 from the federal government.
“This ($554 million) was for the future,” Tsosie explained. “That’s why you see those high requirements to try to spend it.
“When we were talking about the thousands of vehicles that go through here (on I-40),” he said, “The highway’s right there. The internal friction … caused us to delay this and Navajo Gaming was getting frustrated, but they hung in there. At the end, it was built, and this is the evidence, the picture.”
Tónaneesdizí Delegate Otto Tso said in Navajo that money flows through this part of the Nation every day. “We thought of it as using that money to better our Nation and better the lives of our Navajo people,” said Tso, the chairman of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission. “If we didn’t take this gamble, this wouldn’t be here.”
Many years ago, when Navajo Gaming was being planned and discussed by the Navajo Nation Council, gaming purchased the property. Tso said the land here was taken into trust through the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. “Pretty soon, we’re going to have an RV park here,” he said. “This can be more than what it is today. That shopping center, that small hotel chain … that will be coming soon.
“Navajo people, we have the trade, we have the expertise,” he said. “We can build things ourselves. We can handle projects on our own and that blank canvas that you want to paint, we can paint it and try to benefit the Navajo people as a whole.”
Nez said that during the Navajo Blue construction phase, Navajo Gaming created 200 jobs, 95 percent of which were Diné workers. Now, there will be 47 full-time workers employed at Navajo Blue.
“As we were talking about this project, we were looking at bringing in revenue, but at the same time, making this area a destination for our visitors for all over the state and the Southwest,” Nez said, “where people can come to enjoy and to experience the Navajo Nation, the Navajo people.”
West added, “We don’t market the enterprise, we market the Navajo Nation. And this travel plaza is our biggest marketing expense that we’ve ever made, and this is the gateway to the Navajo Nation for the master plan that was approved.”