Chairman: Ak-Chin reaching out to boost economy

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“We’re here to grow this economy,” Ak-Chin Indian Community Chairman Louis Manuel Jr. told the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce Thursday.

In describing some of the areas the community is investigating for the future, Manuel also gave the attendees at the monthly Chamber breakfast a history lesson.

Though much identified with Harrah’s Ak-Chin casino and hotel, Ak-Chin is a farming community, Manuel said. It is also trying to build its industrial areas, exploring the feasibility of fiber optics and looking at ways to further develop its airport. Last week, Golf Advisor ranked Ak-Chin Southern Dunes tops in the nation in its power rankings.

Those are the kinds of projects in which Ak-Chin has invested on its own land and land it purchased. The community expanded its farmland with the purchase of land currently being used for vineyards and other property that contained petroglyphs.

He remained oblique on the specifics of his council’s plans, but competing with Maricopa was not part of the strategy.

“We want to be able to grow and strengthen, and then grow others, too,” Manuel said.

When finding ways to help “the people,” the tribal council views Maricopa and Ak-Chin as one community, he said.

That sparked Ak-Chin’s investments in and donations to local schools and other entities beyond the edicts of revenue-sharing from its gaming compact.

“We want to reach out and identify what we can do,” Manuel said. When the Ak-Chin saw Maricopa wanted a movie theater, it negotiated a deal with San Diego-based UltraStar Cinemas to make it happen. When a push was on for Copper Sky Regional Park, Ak-Chin worked out a deal to chip in.

Future community-wide investments will include contributing to the construction of an overpass on State Route 347 and Interstate 11. Ak-Chin has also been putting its money in projects in Phoenix and Glendale, including hosting Super Bowl events.

“Once you invest that far out, they know that you’re serious,” Manuel said.

Back in the 1940s, the Ak-Chin Community was leasing its agricultural lands to Maricopa farmers, but while the Ak-Chin remained “dirt poor,” several farmers were making a lot of money.

“We took it upon ourselves to save some of those leases and do it ourselves,” he said. That was despite predictions of failure from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and difficulty getting start-up financing. Ak-Chin finally worked out an agreement with the Anderson-Clayton Cotton Gin for farm financing. Local farmers allowed Ak-Chin to use their farming equipment.

The desire for a farming operation played a major part in the creation of the Ak-Chin Constitution in 1961. By 1963, Ak-Chin farms had a profit of $3,000.

About five years ago, that surpassed $2 million, Manuel said. Ak-Chin’s agricultural operation is on 15,000 acres and includes corn, potatoes and cotton.

“The ability to produce and grow is not taken lightly,” the chairman said. “We are stewards of the land.”

While job training, Manuel went through the casino’s management program, which had him working in every department to learn how things were run.