The Tonto Apache Reservation has become the gateway to Payson. A once poverty stricken tribe of 111 members it has grown into a prosperous community that now shares its wealth with others who are less fortunate. The newfound wealth is a direct result of statewide legalized gambling on Indian reservations.
The Tonto Apaches once had to rely on Payson's industry for employment. When Kaibab closed its sawmill on Main Street several years ago, many Tonto Apaches lost their only source of income.
The table has now turned.
The tribe owns businesses both on and off the reservation.
Located on the reservation is the Mazatzal Casino, with about 270 employees, and the Tonto Apache Market convenience store, with eight employees.
Additionally, the Tonto Apache administration which includes the gaming office, police department, recreation center, daycare and administration staff employs 67 people.
Land is also leased to Sonic, which just opened a drive-in fast-food restaurant adjacent to the Mobil station.
The Tonto Apaches also own two businesses in town.
Marble Slab Creamery is an ice cream shop located next to the Sawmill Theatres. It has seven employees.
The recent purchase of the Payson Glo Motel at 1005 S. Beeline added an additional 12 employees to the tribe's payroll and has given the casino the advantage of offering package deals for "stay and play" in Payson.
With more than 360 employees including 27 tribal members, the Tonto Apaches are quickly rising as one of the largest employers in northern Gila County.
The Tribal council is now overseeing the construction of a 19,000-square-foot, two-story administration building that will house all the tribal departments under one roof.
Setting their sights on the future, the tribe is working on a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that will add more than 200 acres to their existing 85. The land exchange will play into their revised economic development plan.
"The Tribal Council is planning for the growth and future of tribal children," Tribal Chairperson Vivian Burdette said. "The elders have lived in the poorest of housing conditions."
Burdette said the Tonto Apaches' immediate concern is securing opportunities for future generations to live and own their own homes and "take pride in their native land."
Pride in their native land also extends to their native language. They are hoping to implement an Apache language class in the near future at Eastern Arizona College.
"Cultural classes are being planned for tribal children during school breaks," Burdette said. "They will be living life as their elders did in the past."
Whether you agree with the gaming industry or are opposed to it, it has proven to be a financial boom for the Tonto Apaches and Payson. They have spread the wealth through employment and generous donations to community organizations.
Had it not been for the tribe's generosity, Payson High School would not yet have its soon-to-be-constructed all-weather track. The tribe also donated thousands of dollars in 2001, as in years past, to various programs and civic organizations that support a variety of things from needy families to wildlife.
The Tonto Apaches' future is bright in Payson.