Economic Summit Focuses On New Business
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
Navajo Times
June 8, 2006

SKY CITY, N.M. - There was something for almost every taste at the Navajo Nation Economic Summit and Business Trade Fair being held this week at the Sky City Casino.

More than 200 business people, tribal officials and people associated with industry attended the event to hear speakers talk about some of the problems the Navajo Nation has in bringing economic development to the reservation. Many of the speakers, such as Steven Gundersen, who spoke Wednesday afternoon, were optimistic that something could be done to correct the tribe's economic woes.

Gundersen, president of an investment company in Hermosa Beach, Calif., said the key is "profit driven capitalism" but that Navajo entrepreneurs must keep in mind their cultural heritage. The idea is for the Navajo Nation to develop a business class made up of tribal members who have the experience and desire to build a profitable business, and then use the profits to build another business and then another. This, he said, is better than a system where the government steps in and develops the business not for profit but as a way to create jobs. There are already a handful of Navajos on the reservation who practice profit-driven capitalism but Gundersen, who is half Navajo and half Norwegian, said there needs to be more.

The Navajos are in a unique position to reach out and grab some of the business that now goes to countries like India and China. Instead of taking several days for a product to reach its customers from foreign shores, a product could be available within a day if made on the reservation. That's the key, Gundersen said, to attract the types of companies that would thrive in this area. He predicted the tribe could achieve financial independence within 10 years if business could flourish. "In 15, it would have economic sovereignty," he said.

Since the summit was held in a casino, it wasn't a big stretch for the tribe's gaming czar, Eddie Lockett, to give his own presentation on gaming and the outlook once the Navajos open their first casino.

A major portion of his office's duties, he said, would be to assure both the tribal government and any prospective player that the games are honest. The tribe's gaming office he said, will constantly monitor Navajo casinos and practically all aspects of their operation. The office will be responsible, for example, for monitoring the casino gaming floor to the point where gaming staff members will observe both customers and employees to make sure that all tribal, state and federal laws are followed. The office will "monitor customers and employees to ensure that no cheating or illegal gaming devices are utilized in the casino," he said. Disputes between customers and casinos are a common occurrence and the tribe's gaming office will be there to settle any disputes as they come up, to make sure that the casino isn't cheating, as well as to make sure the patron gets a fair shake. Lockett said that his office would maintain a list of people who, for one reason or another are banned from the gaming facility. This could range from someone who was caught cheating to someone who has become a gambling addict.

A number of present and former tribal officials were at the summit Wednesday, including former chairman Peter MacDonald who said he was "disappointed" at what he was seeing. "This is not a summit," he said adding that much of what was being discussed at the meeting was already happening on the reservation. He added that he had heard a lot of what the presenters were talking about and he wondered just how much people were getting out of the discussions. According to Allen Begay, executive director of the Division of Economic Development, they were getting quite a lot. He said he has received a lot of favorable comments from most of the people attending the summit, "They are liking it very much," Begay said.