The Arizona Indian Gaming Association (AIGA) walks softly—but carries a big stick—when it comes to clout in the gaming industry. Its membership of 17 tribes represents more than 90 percent of Indian people living on reservations in the state.
In fact, says Ernest Stevens, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, the Arizona organization “is a major presence of what we do in Washington, and the things we do here—representing 420 gaming facilities among 240 tribes in 28 states—could not be done without the leadership displayed in Arizona. The $2.7 billion dollars generated at these gaming sites last year is not an accident.”
As part of its mission “to advance the lives of Indian peoples—economically, socially and politically—to achieve the goal of self-reliance,” AIGA held its annual EXPO last week in Tucson, drawing tribal leadership, casino executives and business leaders from throughout the Southwest with a theme of “Business Beyond Borders—Doing Business in Mexico.”
“Mexico is important to Arizona in general and Indian casinos in particular because Mexican visitors represent an excellent target market for Southern Arizona’s gaming industry,” said AIGA Executive Director Valerie Spicer. In the Grand Canyon state, Indian gaming is a healthy entity representing 15,000 direct jobs and now approaching the billion-dollar mark in contributions back to the state since the gaming compact was signed in 2002, she said.
“There’s no other conference like ours in Indian country that focuses on gaming and business. Tribes want to spur more economic development and businesses want to learn how to partner with tribes. This forum connects tribal enterprises with potential business partners to benefit everyone,” Spicer said.
It’s a partnership that works successfully for everyone involved, according to Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Arizona benefits as tribes go beyond their reservation borders to build support and advocate for their economies because we all benefit when we grow jobs.”
Fellow panelist Kevin Allis, executive director of the Native American Contractors Association, agreed. “As tribes and tribal enterprises consider how to do business beyond borders, we can enhance those opportunities by building alliances with other groups with similar goals.”
There’s a major market potential to be tapped along the U.S./Mexico border and even further south of the geographic line. “Fifty thousand people will come into Arizona from Mexico today alone, and according to the World Tourism Organization, the number of people crossing international borders will double in the next 20 years,” said guest speaker Felipe Garcia, an international trade expert and economic development specialist. Garcia emphasized that travel and tourism efforts continued to be among the most important export industries that drive Arizona’s economy—24 million Mexican visitors a year, with four out of five habitually making day trips for leisure activities that include gaming at Indian casinos.
Navajo Native Notah Begay III (who earned $5 million as a 4-time PGA tour winner and now generates $5 million a year in private business) concurred with not only the need to look south, but to look in all directions for success potential. “Dedication and perseverance are admirable traits in this quest,” he said.