Escalade project still on the table

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 3, 2013

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Three months after the memorandum of understanding between the tribe and developers expired, the proposed $120 million Grand Canyon Escalade resort is back on the table.

The MOU expired July 1, and since it specifically stated the proposed relationship between the tribe and developers Confluence Partners would be terminated "in the event the intended master agreement is not executed and delivered" by that date, the project's opponents thought the proposed 420-acre resort on the rim of the Little Colorado Canyon was dead in the water.

However, Deswood Tome, special advisor to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, said in a recent interview there is a proposed master agreement on the table, along with a new MOU that will last to the end of 2014.

Shelly did not respond to an email asking for copies of the documents by press time.

Jennifer Taliman of Scottsdale-based Confluence Partners last week came before the Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee and invited committee members to tour the area of the planned resort on the rim overlooking the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The committee scheduled the tour for Oct. 14.

Meanwhile, the opposition group Save the Confluence says elders living in the area of the proposed resort were not informed of the new agreement, or that the Budget and Finance Committee will be taking a tour through their customary use area.

"If Confluence Partners is going to tour people around, we would like equal time to give our own tour," said Renae Yellowhorse, a Save the Confluence member who has family in the area.

Tome said the master agreement contains three supporting agreements: an operating agreement, a development agreement and a management agreement for the resort, which would include three motels, several restaurants, vending areas, a museum and a tram to the bottom of the canyon.

"Basically, the master agreement spells out the responsibilities of the tribe and the developers," Tome explained.

Under the agreement, according to Tome, the Navajo Nation would build the infrastructure for the resort, which would also serve the people of the area. Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise would run the three hotels, the discovery center and the visitors' center, while Confluence Partners would run the tram.

In a brief interview Sept. 21, Shelly said he has some reservations about the project, considering no investors have stepped forward. Shelly said he has insisted the tribe receive at least 18 percent of the project's gross revenue.

Tome said that while there are no firm investors, there are some prospects, and the management-sharing aspects of the agreement might be a way to ensure the Nation gets its 18 percent.

Previous estimates put the infrastructure costs at $60 million, including running water lines to the area from existing sources. Tome said, however, that the Department of Water Resources has confirmed there is an aquifer that could be tapped within Bodaway-Gap Chapter, which might cut down on the cost.

"They say if we drill two wells, one on each side of Bodaway Chapter, we could get 300,000 gallons of water a day," he noted.

Yellowhorse called the project's resurrection "upsetting."

"We just had a meeting where we informed the elderly who are still living out there," she said. "They call it the Escalade ye'iis (monsters). They thought it was over; now it's come up again. It brought up all the anxieties again."

Bodaway-Gap Chapter has been split over the proposed project, with some residents looking at the jobs and tourism it would bring, and others wanting the Confluence, which is both a sacred and environmentally sensitive site as well as a grazing area for several families, protected from large-scale development.

Almost exactly a year ago, the chapter voted 59-52 in favor of the Escalade after passing two previous resolutions against it. Opponents charged that the votes were miscounted.

Yellowhorse said the residents have yet to see the feasibility study the tribe had asked Confluence Partners to do, and as far as she has been able to determine, the Partners have not consulted with either the Hopi Tribe or Grand Canyon National Park, both of which expressed opposition to the project last year.

The Hopis also consider the Confluence sacred.

Yellowhorse said Save the Confluence is not opposed to development but would like it to be sustainable, away from the sacred sites, and locally owned.

"It just seems like they have blinders on," she said of the Navajo Nation and Confluence Partners. "There's so many things they could do, but they want this project or nothing. Why they want to build on the most desolate place on earth, in an area that is sacred, risking a lawsuit from the Hopis, instead of along 89 T where there already is all the infrastructure Ñ it's just beyond me."

Tome said the plans include a discovery center which would respectfully interpret the Navajo experience and explain the spiritual significance of the area, which according to Navajo tradition is the home of deities and a place of great power.

"We want to make it an extraordinary experience," he said, "with an interactive museum, with a story on video that talks about who we are as Navajos. It will be like taking a tour through the ages, all the way from our emergence to the present."

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