The Tonto Apaches suspected their contribution to the local economy was sizable, but an assessment conducted by an independent researcher put the intangible in black and white: a nearly $6 million payroll, and $6.8 million in annual purchases from local vendors.
Dr. Lay Gibson, professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was contracted by the Tonto Apaches roughly six months ago to help the tribe determine how much money it was pumping into the local, state and national economies. The assessment was completed and presented to tribe leaders earlier this month.
Gibson admits the finished product doesn't make any comparisons between the impact of the Tonto Apache enterprises and that of other local businesses.
"I've worked with enough towns to know that tribes are usually the largest employers in their areas," Gibson said. He said the figures presented should offer the public a look at an enterprise that has previously been shrouded in mystery.
"I thought it was pretty impressive," said James McDermott, manager of the Tonto Apaches' Mazatzal Casino. "I work with the figures every day, but to see them compiled like this was impressive."
Tribal Chairperson Vivian Burdette said, "I wasn't surprised by the results. We knew (our contributions) were way up there."
Gibson notes that the Tonto Apache labor force is not restricted to the casino, although the majority of employees --285 -- do work at the gaming house. The tribe also employees 39 people at its headquarters, and another seven employees at the Tonto Apache Market.
At first glance, Gibson said he found it interesting to see how many women were employed by the Tonto Apaches.
"There are a lot of female jobs," he said. "This means a couple of things. In this day and age, a female-friendly employer is always welcome, especially in the smaller towns."
Gibson's data shows that the great majority of the tribe's employees --88 percent -- are non-Native American.
"I think that's unique to the Tonto Apaches," McDermott said. "What you find in a lot of the Native American casinos is that you have a much higher rate of tribal employment, because you have a much larger tribe. With a tribe of only about 100 members, all of the eligible (Tonto Apache) members who want to work are employed."
Through its payroll --$5.89 million each year --the Tonto Apaches contribute to the local economy as one of the largest employers in the Rim country. The Tonto Apaches shell out in annual payroll $4.87 million in wages and declared tips at the casino; $892,590 at the headquarters; and $140,120 at the market.
Gibson's findings show that the Tonto Apaches paid more than $1.7 million in taxes last year. This includes income taxes, federal and state gaming taxes, Social Security, Medicare and state unemployment.
"In addition to wages, there are also a lot of transactions to various firms and governmental agencies," Gibson said.
"For example," McDermott said, "we buy a large part of our business supplies here, we do a lot of our printing locally, we get our vehicles repaired here, we have accounts at Safeway and Bashas' ... we try to buy locally whenever we can."
With all three enterprises, the tribe spent $6.8 million last year with local vendors; $8.9 million with Valley vendors; $835,000 elsewhere in the state; and $2.1 million outside of Arizona.
As a Rim country special attraction, the Mazatzal Casino served roughly 776,000 customers in 1998. Two-thirds of those customers were Rim country residents.
The third who are out-of-town visitors are the "'engine' customers," Gibson said. "These people are the economic clout. They bring new money to the Rim country."
Gibson concludes in his study that "the fortunes of the Payson community and the Tonto Apache Tribe are tied to one another, if not by design, then by the realities of economic geography." The best way for everyone to flourish, he maintains, is through effective partnerships fueled by open communication.
To that end, Burdette said, the tribe was releasing the information to the news media, and plans to follow up with a guest spot on the local radio talk show, Rim Country Forum, next week.
"I think (this report) changes our outlook a little bit," Burdette said. "Now, it's in black and white, whereas before, we had always heard we were the biggest employer or made so much money.
"Now, it's on paper. Now, we have something in hand that we can show people."
"I feel that this economic assessment will help us understand and realize what impact we've had on the Town of Payson economically," Tribal Vice Chairperson Jeri Johnson said, "and what future impact we could have.
"And, perhaps, we can make adjustments as to what we need to target to focus on the future."
The Tonto Apache Tribe
• Employs 331, with 285 employees at the Mazatzal Casino
- Employs mostly locals who are non-Indians
- Pays almost $6 million a year in wages
- Spends almost $7 million per year in the Payson area for goods and services
Source: Lay James Gibson and Associates