Does tribe have legal right to seize control of Grand Canyon skywalk?

PHOENIX - Each Sunday, ABC15.com debuts an Arizona issue - along with two opposing sides on the topic.

Don't worry, you always have the opportunity to make comments at the bottom of the page. Yeah, your opinion matters, too.

This week we're tackling the debate on whether or not the Hualapai Tribe has a legal right to seize control of the Grand Canyon skywalk.

David Jin, the developer of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, says he and the Hualapai Tribe signed a contract that allows him to recoup his $30 million investment by handling day-to-day operations of the Skywalk in a 25-year management agreement. But he says he hasn't seen any of that money.

Councilmen Waylon Honga and Charles Vaughn of the Hualapai Tribal Council say the tribe thought there might be an agreement on the horizon, but claim that David Jin chose to create more roadblocks and again belittle the tribe – all in an effort to avoid handing over three years of accounting records that he is obligated to provide.

So, does the Hualapai Tribe have a legal right to seize control of the Grand Canyon skywalk?

Click "next page" to read the first of two positions, "Contract between tribe and skywalk developer was breached".


"Contract between tribe and skywalk developer was breached": By Councilmen Waylon Honga and Charles Vaughn of the Hualapai Tribal Council

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a one-of-a-kind attraction that has enthralled thousands of tourists from around the globe – and given them a window into our culture -- since it opened in 2007.

We are profoundly grateful to these visitors. They have helped the Hualapai Tribe diversify and solidify our economic prospects, providing funds for roads, health care and basic services for our 2,100 tribal members -- all descendants of a people who have occupied this spectacular and spiritually significant land for millions of years.

That said, the Skywalk could be -- and should be -- so much more than it is today.

As has been widely reported, the Hualapai Tribe entered into an agreement with Las Vegas developer David Jin to build the Skywalk and manage the project. Jin and his investors agreed to finance construction of the Skywalk, a visitors' center and gift shop with a restaurant, as well as all on-site and off-site utilities and other infrastructure, including restrooms. In exchange, he was awarded the management contract for the Skywalk and the surrounding facilities. The Tribe would divide revenue from the Skywalk and gift shop evenly with Mr. Jin.

Our tribe has entered into numerous mutually beneficial contracts with vendors and tour operators who have conducted business scrupulously and ethically. We saw this deal with Jin as straightforward and he seemed genuine. Now, we can't be so sure.

The visitors' center that Jin agreed to build is an empty shell. This uninspiring building sits idle with exposed wiring hanging from the ceilings and holes in the floor. Instead of functional bathrooms, as Jin promised, the thousands of tourists who pay to visit are greeted by Porta-Johns. Worse yet, there is no electricity, water or sewer running to the attraction. It's an appalling breach of the contract.

When confronted and asked to account for his actions, Jin did finally show his proactive side. He filed not one, but two lawsuits against our Tribe. Both are frivolous and reckless, much like the shameless PR effort he launched a few months ago. Though he refuses to spend another dollar to honor his Skywalk contract, Jin apparently has unlimited resources for legal battles and vicious attacks in the media. We are happy to report that his campaign is not working.

On June 23, U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell dismissed Jin's baseless lawsuit. Judge Campbell even denied one of Jin's legal motions as "moot." We are confident that we will continue to prevail – in court, and in the court of public opinion.

Jin has also failed in his obligation to meet with Hualapai Tribal Council members and surrender a full accounting of Grand Canyon Skywalk financial records. The critical meetings, initially scheduled for June 13 and 14, were postponed because of Jin's non-negotiable demand that the location of the meeting not be on the Hualapai Reservation. The Tribal Council has always been willing to negotiate an amicable resolution to this issue.

We thought there might be an agreement on the horizon, but instead Mr. Jin chose to create more roadblocks and again belittle our tribe – all in an effort to avoid handing over three years of accounting records that he is obligated to provide.

Thankfully, we have every confidence that the public will see through this dishonorable and cynical charade.

Ours is an ancient culture, and we prefer not to settle our disputes in court rooms. However, despite Jin's sensational claims, the Tribal Council is still considering an array of legal options, including an eminent domain action, to protect the rights of the Hualapai people and end this painful dispute. Our Tribal Constitution clearly states that the Council will not enforce eminent domain on anyone "without just compensation; or deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws or deprive any person of liberty or property without due process."

If the Council decides to exercise its eminent domain rights, the Tribe is ready and more than willing to pay Jin and his investors fair-market-value for their financial commitment. We are a patient people, but that patience is nearing an end.

We look forward to resolving this situation, and to providing a world-class facility that tourists from around the globe deserve.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

Click "next page" to read the second position, "Tribe collects profits and refuses to distribute the money"


"Tribe collects profits and refuses to distribute the money": By David Jin, Las Vegas businessman and developer of the Grand Canyon Skywalk

As a Las Vegas businessman, I've had the good fortune to work with the members of northern Arizona's Hualapai Tribe for more than 20 years. I have brought millions of tourists from around the world to visit the beautiful Western Rim of the Grand Canyon, owned by the Hualapai Nation.

In 1996, I approached the Hualapai Tribe with an idea to build the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a one-of-a-kind glass bridge extending 4,000 feet over the Canyon floor. The Skywalk opened in 2007 and has exponentially increased tourism to Grand Canyon West by creating hundreds of jobs and attracting more than 1.5 million visitors.

I signed over ownership of the Skywalk and a beautiful new Visitors' Center to the Hualapai people. We signed a contract that allows me to recoup my $30 million investment by handling day-to-day operations of the Skywalk in a 25-year management agreement.

Since opening the attraction four years ago, I have not received millions of dollars the Hualapai Tribal Council owes me for managing the Skywalk. They continue to collect profits, yet refuse to distribute the money to me or the Hualapai people.

Now the Hualapai Tribal Council is threatening to keep my entire investment by using an over-reaching government tactic known as eminent domain. This is clearly a desperate attempt to avoid opening their books and paying me three years of back-owed profits. The Council members appear to be equally desperate to convince the media and the public that this action is justified.

The Tribal Council claims that the reason they are keeping my money and seizing my assets is because I abandoned the Visitors' Center and left it unfinished. The truth is, three years ago the Hualapai Tribal Council issued a stop-work order which blocks me from finishing the building. According to their public meeting minutes, they were concerned the new Skywalk restaurant would compete with the food service the Tribe operates at the Grand Canyon.

These Council members plan to seize my assets, valued at nearly $100 million, because they claim I am obligated to provide power, sewer and water utilities to the area and have not done so. In reality, the Tribal Council has failed to bring this infrastructure to the Skywalk so the Visitors' Center can be completed and open to the public.

Earlier this year, the former Hualapai chairman issued a public notice announcing that the Tribe was awarded a $13 million federal grant to bring water to Grand Canyon West. It also stated they applied for a $3.5 million grant to bring power to the area. Why did the Tribal Council apply for federal grants if they expected me to bring utilities?

I am more than happy to have a third party sort out these answers and resolve these issues.

The Hualapai Tribal Council has a moral and contractual obligation to abide by our signed contract and go to arbitration, which is the mediated process we agreed to use to resolve any disputes involving the Skywalk. Unfortunately, the Tribal Council has objected to arbitration every time I have requested it. I believe this is a case of a few elected officials working to cover up the mismanagement of their books, without the full backing of the Hualapai people. In fact, the Hualapai people recently had to remove the Chairman of their Tribe for inappropriately spending tribal money.

I am disheartened to engage in a legal battle with members of the Tribal Council. However, I must protect my substantial investment. Out of respect for the tribal court, I took my request for arbitration to a tribal judge. When I found out about the Tribal Council's plan to declare eminent domain and seize my multi-million dollar investment, I had no choice but to seek protection from a federal judge.

Just this past week, the Tribe's legal counsel misled the judges in both courtrooms in an attempt to skirt the legal process altogether. Their lawyers told the federal judge that the matter was being handled in tribal court and told the tribal judge it is being handled in federal court. They are asking both judges to dismiss the case so they will not be subjected to judicial scrutiny as they seize control of my management contract. They are literally operating as a lawless government that refuses to be accountable to any court.

Why won't they distribute the millions of dollars sitting in our shared bank account to their people? Why are they instead spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-priced attorneys? Why are they paying a public relations firm to tarnish my name after I invested millions of dollars to create jobs and improve their economy?

The answer to these all of these questions is simple. This dispute is about missing money. It is about the Hualapai Tribal Council's inability to account for the profits of the past three years. They will not arbitrate with me because the arbiter will force them to open their books and they know their books will not add up.

The Hualapai people must decide if they will allow this eminent domain law to stand. If the Hualapai Tribal Council seizes my management contract through eminent domain, it will impact tribal people far beyond the Hualapai borders. No businessperson will have confidence investing in tribal communities if the Hualapai Tribal Council shows the world that they will not honor the contracts they sign.

The members of the Tribal Council owe me and the Hualapai people a simple and clear resolution: abide by our contract, attend the arbitration and open your books.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

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