Use Rescue Act funds for economic growth, recovery
Last week the Division of Economic Development shared an ambitious proposal with the Naabik’iyati’ Committee to direct approximately half of the estimated $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act relief funds, expected to arrive on Navajo in May, to projects for economic expansion and recovery.
However, carrying out the proposal will require a resource and staffing expansion, a reprieve from lengthy and burdensome policies, and work with partners to support and manage economic development plans, said DED Director JT Willie.
Willie said the DED’s ARPA proposal was developed with input from regional business development offices and other stakeholders. It is a rough outline subject to change.
It can be a starting point that can be expanded or modified with guidance from chapter leaders and Council delegates, he said.
“The overall concept of this plan is divided up between immediate support in grant awards and a range of long-term impactful projects that will offer continuous diversification in the Navajo economy,” said Willie.
Proposed regulatory changes
By request of Speaker Seth Damon, DED will be also make recommendations to waiving rules and restrictions that often get in the way of developing projects, including the 164 review process, land withdrawals, and right-of-way clearances, and business-site leasing approvals.
“We’re doing everything possible to eliminate those wait times and look at feasible timelines in order for us to see redirection of projects,” said Willie. “We have to come up with different strategies to meet that need in order to see the strong retention and development of economic projects throughout Navajo.”
This includes timely communication and coordination with other divisions and entities such as Navajo Tribal Utility Authority for the required infrastructure planning and development, including water and power lines.
Willie said the possibility that the development for many of the projects might have to be removed from the government level altogether through the creation of a separate, viable entity in order to build out projects without red tape, which will require major policy and regulatory changes and/or waivers.
“The last thing we want to see is failure for some of these projects to be completed within the next few years,” said Willie.
At a price tag of $362 million, DED’s ARPA proposal includes a comprehensive list “Navajo Nation Economic Revitalization Projects” that will provide priority infrastructure and development, diversify availability of goods and services, and incentivize Navajos to stay local and buy essential amenities on the reservation:
- $15 million Crownpoint Hotel Retail District
- $7.5 million Pueblo Pintado Convenience Store
- $7.5 million Tohajiilee Convenience Store
- $7.5 million Church Rock Convenience Store
- $7 million Tsayatoh Wood Pellet Manufacturing Co.
- $60 million Miyamura Retail District/Residential Estates
Fort Defiance Agency
- $15 million Ganado Market Place
- $7 million Red Lake/Navajo Pine Market Place
- $15 million Dilkon Market Place
- $8 million Tse Bonito Feed Store for agricultural supplies and a farmers market.
- $40 million Navajo Code Talker Museum in Tse Bonito with restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir stores, and other vendor spaces.
- $30 million Window Rock Multipurpose Arena for recreation activities, major events, concerts, conferences and vendor spaces.
- •$30 million Tuba City Hotel & Retail District
- $15 million Lechee Retail District
- $12 million Leupp Commercial Site District
- $7 million Many Farms Market Place
- $7.5 million Rocky Ridge Gas & Market
- $7.5 million To Tsoh Convenience Store
- $4 million Cameron Farm Enterprise for agriculture development in the Little Colorado River valley and former Bennett Freeze Area
- $7 million Sheep Springs Market Place
- $25 million Upper Fruitland Retail District
- $7.5 million Red Mesa Gas & Market
- $20 million Big Navajo Energy & Navajo Oil and Gas Hydrogen Pilot Project
Depending on location, needs, and scope of projects, each proposed “Convenience Store, Market Place or Retail District” may offer gas stations, food markets, restaurants, coffee shops, galleries/arts and crafts, quick clinics, laundromat, farm and ranch supply stores, water stores, theaters, recreational facilities and more.
“It is our intended goal to put in place meaningful, impactful, and sustainable economic projects to reengage the Navajo business community,” said Willie.
Other DED ARPA revitalization opportunities include $50 million proposed for agricultural projects, $75 million for outdoor recreation projects, and $100 million for entertainment venues across Navajo.
“These areas are very dynamic,” said Willie. “There are so many opportunities for development.”
DED’s ARPA “Reengaging Tourism on the Navajo Nation” revitalization plan includes a total of $143 million in expenditures at key destination sites:
- $8 million Window Rock Visitor Center
- $10 million Chinle Visitor Center (Canyon De Chelly)
- $6 million Chinle Vendor Village
- $10 million Shiprock Visitor Center
- $5 million Shiprock RV Park and San Juan River Walkway
- $15 million Shiprock Pinnacle Park with trails, outdoor activities and vendor booths serving the communities of Red Valley, Shiprock and Gadi’I’ahi/To’Koi
- $3 million Coalmine Canyon’s Dinosaur Track Park
- $8 million Cameron Visitor Center
- $8 million Chilchinbito Visitor Center
- $10 million Houck Travel Center (Fort Courage)
- $10 million Nashchitti Travel Center (Chooshgai Mountains)
- $10 million Monument Valley Travel Center
- $10 million Lechee Visitor Center (Antelope Canyon/Lake Powell)
- $30 million Twin Arrows (Grand Falls) Entertainment Center & Outlets
“Visitor centers” will be able to house the Navajo Travel Agency, conference areas, coffee shops, souvenir shops, office spaces, theaters, outdoor pavilions and other amenities.
“Travel centers” will provide goods and services for visitors and community members, such as gas stations, commercial truck stop amenities, food markets, restaurants and laundromats.
Project review and planning
As part of a tentative schedule laid out by Willie, DED plans to meet with chapters about the ARPA proposal starting in April to assess qualified project proposals and identify shovel-ready developments.
“What we plan to do is meet with many of our local leadership at the chapter level, whether by agency or by district, to address many of the economic proposals we have submitted as well as those that we might have missed,” said Willie.
In May, finalized project proposals that are ready to go will be submitted to the Navajo Nation Council for approval and recruitment and hiring of administrative personnel/contractors will begin.
In July, land designations, withdrawals and chapter resolutions for commercial zoning and creation of an ARPA projects Master Plan will occur.
In August, the bid opening process will begin and vendors will be selected for projects, the 164 review process will be launched, and a 2022-24 construction schedule will be developed.
“Of course, there may be opportunities to remove some projects because we feel they’re not going to be met by the 2024 deadline,” he said.
Willie said they can also modify the proposed DED ARPA plan to include or exclude projects if they are not feasible according to U.S. Treasury ARPA guidelines, which have yet to be released.
Regardless, Navajo owned businesses should be at the forefront for procurement to provide goods and services through the ARPA, said Willie.
ARPA direct relief
As outlined, the DED’s ARPA plan also includes an additional proposed $25 million for artisans and $100 million for businesses in the new DED “ARPA Navajo Economic Artisan & Business Relief Grant Program 2021.”
The purpose of the grant program is to assist Navajo artisans and businesses facing financial hardship, lost revenue, and/or business interruption due to the COVID-19 public health emergency in order to regain economic stability.
Willie said with many businesses on Navajo still closed or operating at limited capacity, there is a great need for assistance for business owners and artisans.
“The opportunity to provide immediate support is what we want to see put in place,” he said.
The application process will open in June and the deadline to submit is Nov. 31, said Willie.
Eligible established Navajo artists over 18 can apply for the $5,000 Artisan Relief Grants and eligible registered Navajo businesses and enterprises that can prove hardship due to the pandemic can apply for an Economic Relief Grant.
Those who were previously awarded grants under the CARES Act cannot reapply.
DED’s ARPA plan also includes a “Navajo Economic Relief & Shortfall Fund” that proposes recouping some of the estimated revenue losses in revenue to the Navajo Nation due to the pandemic, including a $5 million shortfall in tax revenue for Fuel/Sales/Hotel Tax, $17 million reduction in general Business Site Leasing fees, and $3 million in Navajo Nation Shopping in Business Site Leasing fees for its nine locations.
Building capacity through collaboration
Willie said creating collaborative partnerships with entities such as Change Labs, Navajo Technical University, the Dineh Chamber of Commerce and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development will be critical to administering the ARPA funds and hiring Navajo small businesses for projects.
“The goal is to provide the much-needed technical support to the small businesses and entrepreneurs across the Navajo Nation,” he said. “We’re laying down the foundation, but we need to have all of us at the table.”
Under the DED ARPA proposal, Change Labs would receive $14.6 million to support entrepreneurship training, business coaching, access to creative workspace and online assistance.
“Change Labs has been at the forefront as a business incubator,” said Willie. “We want to support an incubator system at the chapter level.”
The Dineh Chamber of Commerce would receive $5 million for administrative, recruitment, and project management costs.
The National Centers for American Indian Enterprise Development would receive $5 million for small business support through new Navajo Business Center and cyber-security preparedness for Navajo businesses.
Navajo Technical University would receive $28.2 million for expansion in the areas of STEM, health, business, and management fields as well as to fund research and intellectual property infrastructure, advanced manufacturing and also serve as a business incubator.
Diné College would receive $5 million.
Finally, DED itself would receive a total of $15 million for capacity building, including $5 million for personnel, $5 for consultants, $4 million for equipment and supplies and $1 million for marketing and media.
Willie said with DED already at capacity with its permanent employees who do project management work force, bringing on additional staff to help administer the ARPA projects will be critical.
“It’s my hope that we can retain essential staffing to be the project managers to be fully dedicated to project build-outs,” said Willie.
With the shortfall in revenues to the Navajo Nation due to factors such as the closure of Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Kayenta Mine, Willie recognizes there may be a need for reductions in Navajo Nation government workforce to balance the budget but believes that should be avoided if possible.
“That’s something we don’t want to see,” said Willie. “We are reaching a time when many of our divisions will face a change in how we operate our opportunities here on Navajo not only for the current workforce but what we want to see forthcoming.”