Salt River Community stakes claim as economic development powerhouse

Casino Arizona is one of the entertainment attractions housed on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

While the candle burns brightly in the city of Scottsdale, the growing flame of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is illuminating the eastern Loop 101 route.

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has been actively pursuing economic development on its 52,600 acres with the ultimate goal of creating long-term sustainability for its citizens, officials there contend.

Delbert Ray, president of the community, is in his final year of a four-year term. During his time in office several large projects have come online during his term: OdySea in the Desert, the Scottsdale AutoShow, senior community Legacy Village of Salt River at the Pima Center and The Block at Pima Center.

The SRPMIC has positioned itself as a progressive community, claiming to have the only community college on Native American Land — Scottsdale Community College — and home to the nation’s first master-planned autopark on tribal land.

Moreover, the community appears to be developing into a local entertainment mecca.

Found within the Salt River Community are OdySea Aquarium, Dolphinaris, in-door skydiving, Top Golf and casinos. An in-the-works indoor water park and reportedly, a Medieval Times four-course feast venue, accompanied by a two-hour jousting tournament, are set to open in 2019.

“Economic development has been important to this community for many decades,” Mr. Ray said in an interview with the Independent.

“This effort has taken various forms over the years. The leadership of prior councils and our people brought the Loop 101 through our community. This strategic development opportunity has given the SRPMIC an ability to be a regional destination in the Valley.”

The community’s own developments include Talking Stick Golf Club, Talking Stick Resort, Salt River Fields, Salt River Devco, Casino Arizona, Salt River Sand and Rock, Phoenix Cement, Saddleback Communications, Salt River Financial Services and Salt River Landfill.

Salt River Fields is lauded as one of the premier fields for spring training patrons, leading Major League Baseball in total attendance each year since opening in 2011. The stadium — the Cactus League home to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies — has sold out 115 times, officials contend.

“The community’s leaders have been strategic in how they developed that valuable real estate, starting with office buildings and a retail center before adding a resort hotel, Talking Stick Fields and tourist attractions like the OdySea Aquarium and Top Golf,” Former Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Hiegel said.

“Now many of the car dealerships that fled McDowell Road have relocated to reservation land.”

Local city and government officials all agree the synergy between communities is positive. Yet, a new 70-acre auto mall that opened up just on the outside border of the city is expected to siphon potentially $1 million from Scottsdale’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, Independent records show.

When consumers cross the street from Scottsdale into the SRPMIC and spend their money there, the city loses out on any potential sales tax.

Numbers provided by the city of Scottsdale shows sales tax remits delivered to the municipality through motor vehicle dealers have increased between 2014-17, although the Scottsdale AutoShow didn’t start selling vehicles until late 2017:

  • 2014: $16,313,604;
  • 2015: $18,049,619;
  • 2016: $18,510,328;
  • 2017: $19,209,167.

“No one wanted to see the car dealers leave McDowell Road, but changing market conditions made it inevitable,” Mr. Hiegel said. “I’d rather see those dealerships next door in Salt River, where they can split off related business to Scottsdale, than in some other part of the Valley.”

Mark Hiegel

In addition to auto sales tax, bed tax remits will be increasing within the Salt River Community as well, as there are a handful of lodging options working their way through the municipal process.

SRPMIC will be receiving transaction privilege tax revenue from the auto sales, plus the additional funds from the land leases. On an annual basis, the community collects possessor interest tax — its version of a property tax — from dealerships doing business on tribal lands.

“Scottsdale leaders encouraged this growth because it was also good for their city,” Mr. Hiegel said.

“Mayors, city council members, the city economic development department, Experience Scottsdale, Scottsdale Community College’s two presidents and Salt River leaders such as President Ray and his predecessors realized that by working together, the economic pie grows and each of our slices become bigger and more financially rewarding. Economic growth in either community benefits the other.”

Mr. Hiegel says Scottsdale’s warm weather, resorts, arts reputation and Arabian Horse Shows aren’t enough to sustain Scottsdale if it were surrounded by blight.

“The ability to attract more tourists and businesses from around the world is enhanced when our neighbors in the Salt River Community, Paradise Valley, Cave Creek, Carefree and Fountain Hills add their cultures and attractions to the mix,” Mr. Hiegel says.

Casino Arizona is one of the entertainment attractions housed on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Creating opportunity

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community states it has 11 areas of economic development, spanning both the east and west sides of the Loop 101.

“The community is benefiting from the growth in the national economy and, of course, by our excellent location,” Mr. Ray said of his community’s economic development focus.

“Over the last four years, our council has worked to provide more offerings to the region by ensuring that our staff provides excellent and customized services for our partners, that our community members have a chance for creative employment choices and to continue the historic heritage of hospitality that our community has always held as a value.”

The SRPMIC’s myriad developments span in size from 15 acres at Pima North to 209 acres at Pima Center.

“The No. 1 item is jobs,” Mr. Ray said of the economic benefit provided to SRPMIC citizens. “From automotive to retail, sports facilities to hospitality; members of the community have a great opportunity to make a career choice in a variety of professions and not have to leave the community.”

The remits going into the SRPMIC coffers are used to provide services such as education, health, youth and senior programs, public works and public safety and fire, President Ray noted, adding the community recently opened a two-story indoor/outdoor recreational complex.

Similar to the city of Scottsdale and Town of Paradise Valley, hotel guests are charged a bed tax when staying in a room on Salt River land.

Those funds are funneled back into the community.

“The community’s revenue generation from businesses and development are to promote future security for generations to come,” Mr. Ray said.

“Similar to all communities, we believe a diverse economy is the best over the long term. Today, we are beginning to see a great diversity in the economic activity in our community. It is our hope this will create a long-term revenue base.”

Mr. Ray says SRPMIC has relationships with several developers with master leases who look for the right tenants.

“These developers are actively looking for the right mix of tenants for this area and region,” he said. “The SRPMIC actively supports our developers in their efforts along with balancing outreach to new businesses.”

Great Wolf Lodge is estimated to be opening in the Talking Stick Entertainment District in 2019. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The more the better

At a March Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce event, Scottsdale Forward and city leaders described a thriving economic landscape, with Experience Scottsdale CEO Rachel Sacco claiming the Scottsdale hospitality industry among the strongest in the nation.

Additionally, City Manager Jim Thompson says eight hotels are on the drawing board for Old Town and south Scottsdale areas.

Resorts are in the works on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community as well, and one company recently signed a long-term lease agreement allowing use of property near Salt River Fields for nearly a century.

Great Wolf Resorts, Inc., a family of indoor water park resorts, announced in early 2018 that it is expanding in Arizona with a planned 350-room family resort in the Talking Stick Entertainment District in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Great Wolf Lodge Arizona is scheduled to open the second half of 2019, becoming the company’s 18th resort in North America.

Some of the highlights include an 85,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, heated to 84 degrees and featuring a variety of body slides, tube slides, raft rides, activity pools and splash areas.

Mr. Ray says three additional hotels will be announced over time. Additionally, Staybridge hotel at the Pavilions, is being built now, bringing more than 100 extended-stay rooms to market.

Dr. Amram Knishinsky, owner and operator of the OdySea in the Desert entertainment district at Loop 101 and Via de Ventura, will also be opening a lodging option for visitors.

OdySea in the Desert is located 9500 E. Via de Ventura. (photo by Lauren Crites)

The area anchored first by Butterfly Wonderland in 2013, and then the OdySea Aquarium and Dolphinaris in 2016, is not only planning to add a hotel, but also a bird observatory and a surfing facility, Dr. Knishinsky said in March.

A dinosaur park, icy game environment, restaurants, an in-door carousel and a mirror maze are also tenants at 9500 E. Via de Ventura.

Dr. Knishinsky’s ultimate goal, he says, is to offer families a place to come and be able to stay on the property for two to three days, entertained by the multiple attractions offered.

Gensler, an architectural firm that Dr. Knishinsky lauds as the best in the United States, has been hired to design the bird aviary, he says. Gensler is also designing the Great Wolf Lodge, he noted.

When asked what drew him to start his development plans within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Dr. Knishinsky says the freeway access was a large part of his decision.

“A corner like the 101 and Via de Ventura gives us tremendous exposure,” he explained. “We’ve spent millions of dollars on promotion and advertising and so forth, but when we do a survey and ask how people heard about us, still 40 or 50 percent will say ‘well I saw you when I was driving on the freeway.’ It’s a tremendous advantage having frontage on the 101.”

The Pima Freeway — Loop 101’s official name — project start date was in 1990, according to officials at Arizona Department of Transportation.

The first section of freeway opened in 1996, including design and construction of the bridges at McDowell and McKellips, and lanes from Loop 202 to Thomas Road.

Dr. Knishinsky’s section of Loop 101 was started in 1997.

The large pieces of land available was also a draw to the SRPMIC, Dr. Knishinsky noted.

“I could create a master plan and feature a lot of attractions,” he explained. “Not having a few acres here and there across the city — having the ability to have a large master plan for an entertainment district.”

Dr. Knishinsky isn’t trying to compete with the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, he says, but does believe a close-knit entertainment marketplace that can sustain families for multiple days is possible.

Community diversity benefits all

When it comes to recruiting local businesses and employees to the Valley of the Sun, having a variety of options for business firms to look at in the area is a good thing, Scottsdale Economic Development Director Danielle Casey contends.

“Having a variety of options for the wide range of businesses, industries, and amenities interested in growing in the greater Scottsdale area is certainly a good thing as top decision influencing facts or site-specific needs can vary greatly among firms,” she explained.

Scottsdale Economic Development Director Danielle Casey at a recent city council meeting. (File photo)

“Some are interested in owning facilities while others may be focused on a shorter-term lease to test the market.”

Having a variety of amenities — whether within Scottsdale’s boundaries or not — is beneficial when marketing the city, the economic development director says.

“Some operations like large entertainment venues require larger acreages that are not available within Scottsdale city limits,” she said.

“Having these diverse options is a strong plus.”

Ms. Casey points to a recent 2018 economic and business update that shows Scottsdale’s unemployment rate as of November 2017 is 3.2 percent, compared to 4.1 percent nationally.

Information, communication and technology, and insurance and finance service jobs are up 37 percent and 27 percent respectively since 2013, the economic development information claims.

In addition, office properties in Scottsdale spend three months less on the market than the five-year average.

“We consider the entire greater Phoenix area part of a strong regional economy that is indeed competitive on a national scale due to a number of factors: positive business climate, high quality of life, lack of natural disasters, a large labor pool, and strong university systems just to name a few,” she said.

“Companies that choose to come to the region often report first selecting the region as a preferred place to do business, and then choosing a final location based on specific real estate options that meet their unique needs.

“Scottsdale regularly collaborates and partners with neighboring communities,” Ms. Casey noted. “In particular, we share ideas and updates regularly with the economic development and planning teams at Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and they do the same with us.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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