Tonto Apache Tribe Brings Millions To Rim Country

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The Tonto Apache Tribe has a rich heritage in the Rim Country, and it is building a legacy just as valuable through its economic impact today.

"The Tonto Apache Tribe might be small in terms of both population and land area, but its contributions to the greater Payson area economy are enormous," Lay James Gibson, University of Arizona, said in an economic assessment prepared for the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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The tribe's payroll, through the casino, its government operations and other businesses, is $8.3 million. It contributes another $4 million to the community with purchases from area vendors.

This study -- an update of a similar report made in June 1999 -- was presented to tribal leaders and representatives from the town, chamber and Payson Regional Economic Development Corp. on Aug. 26.

"A lot of people see the casino as a way to generate revenue for the tribe without realizing the contribution it makes to the whole area," Jerry Holland, tribal controller, said. "Everyone benefits."

The tribe's payroll, through the casino, its government operations and other businesses, is $8.3 million, Gibson said in the report. This is up 41 percent from 1999. The salaries of 445 people are included in that amount, compared to 331 in 1999.

"The presentation was phenomenal," Tina Bruess, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, said. "Unfortunately the incredible economic impact of the Tonto Apache Tribe has been a well-kept secret for far too long. The numbers are really impressive for a tribe this size. It's not just the casino; the tribe's contributions to community programs are impressive also."

Gibson's report shows more than 79 percent of those employees are non-Indians. The TAT enrollment has 123 members, with 103 between the ages of 16 and 64.

"For all practical purposes, the tribe has full employment," Gibson said, pointing out that 93 of the members are employed either at the casino, in tribal government or in its other businesses.

The other businesses include the Tonto Apache Tribal Market and Smoke Shop and Paysonglo Motel. The Sonic Drive-in, located on the reservation, is leased to an outside operator and is not a tribal enterprise.

The tribe pays payroll taxes estimated at $1.2 million each year. The casino also pays approximately $810,989 for wagering taxes, FICA, Arizona Department of Gaming Revenue Sharing and Arizona state taxes.

While state taxes are not paid on the $3 million in per capita payments made to tribal members, $600,000 in federal taxes were withheld in 2004, Gibson said.

The tribal government and its businesses also pay for goods and services. More than $16 million was spent in 2004, with approximately $4 million paid to Payson-area businesses and the balance going to the Phoenix area, elsewhere in Arizona and out of state. The casino spends about $7.5 million out of state.

"That is primarily for leasing our slot machines," said James McDermott, general manager of the Mazatzal Casino. "We'd like to spend more of that in state, but there are only a couple of slot manufacturers in Scottsdale. Most of them are in Nevada."

The money paid to Payson businesses and services supports between 55 and 63 other workers, Gibson said.

"We've always known the casino is one of our largest employers, providing good jobs for a lot of people," Scott Flake, executive director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, said. "The Tonto Apache Tribe is important to the town, but the town is important to the tribe too. We're all one community."

Flake said he was pleased the PREDC was involved in the meeting. He was accompanied by his board president, Judy Miller.

"Our organization would like to work more with the tribe," Flake said. "We can be a resource for them to use. It's important for us to continue to communicate and work together."

Summarizing his report, Gibson said the fortunes of the town and tribe are tied to one another.

"A more effective and efficient partnership between these entities will help assure that all parties benefit," he said.

He recommended that tribal and community leaders meet on a regular basis.

"The tribe and town have a pretty good working relationship," Holland said, and the two have moved toward more regular meetings. "But it is difficult to get all of our tribal council and all of the town council together, because of everyone's schedules," he said.

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