As part of a deal in which he was supposed to split ticket sales for the next 25 years with the Hualapai nation, developer David Jin built the Grand Canyon Skywalk – the horseshoe-shaped steel and glass viewing platform that juts out 70 feet over the breathtaking 4,000-foot-deep Grand Canyon in remote Northern Arizona.
The Skywalk is located about 100 miles east of Las Vegas and 60 miles northeast of Kingman, Ariz.
The parties had a falling out, though, over who was supposed to finance delivery of water, electricity and sewer services to the adjacent visitor center, which thus sits unfinished. So the Hualapai Tribal Council simply seized the whole operation, under its powers of eminent domain, last February.
That this could have ramifications far from dusty Peach Springs suddenly becomes obvious. If the courts uphold the right of Indian tribes to settle any dispute by simply seizing anything built on their lands, what developer in his right mind would enter any such future partnership?
“The actions of the Hualapai tribe are inappropriate and I believe a judge will confirm that it was illegal,” says Ted Quasula, who served as chairman of the tribe’s board of directors when the agreement was signed. “The business grab by my own tribe hurts all Native American nations because it raises serious questions for American and foreign investors who must have a level of trust when dealing with tribal nations.”
The American Arbitration Association reviewed Mr. Jin’s contract with the tribe, agreed to arbitrate the matter and awarded Mr. Jin $28.6 million. The tribe contests the validity of that award, so Mr. Jin is now asking a U.S. District Court in Arizona to enforce it.
A reasonable settlement that could lead to completion of the visitor center is desirable for everyone. Yes, tribal sovereignty requires the court to tread carefully. But, as the Kingman Daily Miner warned Sept. 16, the “Hualapai tribe could lose everything in the Skywalk dispute.” The developer’s attorney, Mark Tratos, told the Arizona newspaper that according to the tribe’s own eminent domain law, if it can’t pay just compensation within the time period set by the tribal court, it has to give the property back, meaning Mr. Jin’s outfit might not even have to split future proceeds with the tribe.
“I want to get back my partnership with the Hualapai,” Mr. Jin says. “We need each other to deliver a world-class experience for American and foreign tourists.”
Sounds about right.