When a rattling, old building was demolished near the corner of John Wayne Parkway and Honeycutt Road several years ago, the emotional response from members of the Ak-Chin Indian Community surprised Maricopa City Council.
“We wanted to let them know some of the things that stood back then, what it meant to the community of Ak-Chin because we supported Maricopa in generating their own economic development. Our people would go support the mercantile and the bar right across from it,” Chairman Robert Miguel said.
Then-chairman Louis Manuel explained to city leaders the sentimental ties the Ak-Chin had to Maricopa businesses, some that had been standing more than 80 years.
“They were so hurt,” Mayor Christian Price said, surprise still in his voice. “Me being a newcomer, I had to ask, ‘Why did that bother you?’ It was because nobody told them. Nobody expressed the courtesy with a call, text or email so they would know what’s going on.”
As a sovereign nation, Ak-Chin Indian Community is accustomed to dealing with heady federal issues with other sovereign nations and Washington, D.C. Its unique relationship with the community of Maricopa, on the other hand, is based on decades of friendship, neighborliness and shared history.
Miguel uses the word “family.”
It was that connection on which Ak-Chin leaders have educated Price and the city council. Ak-Chin members continue to be frequent customers at long-time businesses like Headquarters Restaurant, and there are still ties to old buildings south of the tracks. They like to be notified just like the rest of the Maricopa community when major changes are afoot in old Maricopa.
“Now, of course, the NAPA Auto store is getting ready to go down,” Miguel said. “That’s kind of like, you hold your chest and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ because it’s some of our history. We grew up with the area, with the original buildings. A lot of our elders remember those days.”
Now it is Maricopans frequenting and finding employment at Ak-Chin entities like Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino and UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. Miguel said he wants newcomers to understand Ak-Chin is much more than those two entities and would like them to come into the community to get to know them as people.
So, when questions arise about whether Ak-Chin contributes or invests enough in the City of Maricopa and the surrounding community, the mayor has to shake his head.
“Our relationship is so much deeper than money. Money is great, but it’s so much more than that,” Price said. “It’s being able to work together. It’s being able to solve problems, especially when it comes to economic development.”
Between 2016 and 2018, Ak-Chin Indian Community directly contributed $4.44 million for the operation of the struggling Copper Sky complex. It has also paid fees to sponsor or participate in Maricopa events like Salsa Fest, the Great American 4th and the Color Run.
The Ak-Chin Community often uses the City of Maricopa as a pass-through agency for its required disbursement of grant funds from Prop 202, the law that allows gaming contracts while requiring 12% of revenue to be donated to area programs like education and public safety.
“They write the check to the City of Maricopa, and the City of Maricopa writes the check to the nonprofit,” Price said. “We act as trustee and can verify as a third party that it’s getting to the people it’s supposed to be going to.”
In the past five years, projects for the Prop 202 funds have included a homebound delivery program, Thunderbird Fire District, Keeping Teachers Teaching and the food bank. In 2017, Ak-Chin gave $279,000 to the Family Advocacy Center.
A major local project to which Ak-Chin has not contributed monetarily is the overpass across the Union Pacific tracks. While the Ak-Chin benefits from the bridge, Price said there should be no game theory of expectations.
“I think it’s dangerous for us to go tit for tat. I don’t think that’s legit,” Price said.
He said while the funding of the overpass is not linear, and Ak-Chin could kick in some money at any time, the tribal council has directly impacted the Maricopa economy in other ways. He cited the 10 weeks it kept hundreds of people employed with benefits during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“There’s lots of ways in which they give back, and there’s lots of ways in which they benefit and we benefit,” Price said.
Miguel said the overpass was very much needed and a benefit to the area. “The traffic that’s going in Maricopa is pretty wild,” he said. And Ak-Chin played a role in landing the federal funding, keeping the discussion in front of Arizona’s congressional delegation.
“They were absolutely key,” Price said. “They went back to D.C. with us to meet with federal highway administration, to meet with people back there who were instrumental in breaking things free. The feds love it when local governments are working closely and tightly with the native tribes. They love it because it’s just one more hurdle they’re not going to have to deal with later.”
When he can travel to Washington, Miguel said he tries to keep exerting that influence.
“Every time I would go to D.C., even now, I would get ahold of Mayor Price and ask him, ‘What do you need?’” Miguel said.
The mayor and the chairman chat at least twice a month.
“This is what friends do,” Price said. “This is what people do who want to build a strong relationship moving forward together for the next 150 years, or 200 or 1,000 years. That’s what they do. They do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
2015-2020 Ak-Chin contributions 2015-2020 Ak-Chin Contributions
and fees to City of Maricopa to community projects (Prop 202)
This story appears in part in the August issue of InMaricopa.