Business leaders speak their minds to Shelly

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 21, 2011

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Navajo business leaders are on the verge of creating a chamber of commerce as the result of the Business Leaders Roundtable.

Cal Nez, a Salt Lake City business owner, was one of about 100 people who attended the event held April 15 at the Navajo Nation Museum.

The roundtable was organized by President Ben Shelly to give business owners and leaders the opportunity to comment about business development on the Navajo Nation.

Nez said that led to creating the framework for a Navajo chamber of commerce, adding, "I'm impressed with the new (business) mentality on Navajo."

He said that when he first broached the idea of a Navajo chamber of commerce - about 20 years ago - it received little attention. This time, however, "we had 25 members within an hour and half," he said.

Nez, who has owned a graphic art and advertising company, also helped create the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.

A chamber of commerce can help businesses and entrepreneurs get in touch and organize to lobby for their interests in political settings. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is one of the most potent lobbying forces in Washington.

Nez said the Navajo chamber of commerce is still in development but he hopes to be ready for complete memberships within a few weeks.

However, a chamber of commerce is just one solution to a reservation that is known for squelching business growth with bureaucracy and ignoring Navajo preference laws that could help Navajo business owners get in on fat government contracts for schools, hospitals and the like.

Shelly told the roundtable that of $175 million in contracts last year, only 20 percent went to Navajo-owned businesses.

Meanwhile, he said, reservation unemployment hovers at a stubborn 60 percent.

"We need to create jobs," Shelly said of the private sector's role. "We need to create jobs so we don't depend on federal money."

He added that if the federal government shuts down, it could adversely effect the Navajo government since it depends primarily on federal monies.

Shelly also said that Navajo casinos both present and future are going to need to rely on small businesses for products and upkeep.

"The casino can't run by itself," he said.

He urged attendees to "tell us your wants in tribal law."

Attendees spoke to the need to streamline the process of obtaining a business license, allow for an open bidding process, but most importantly, Nez said, to enforce and revise the Navajo preference law.

Nez said that his business is always looking for contracts and that although the Navajo Nation has a Navajo preference law, its contracts go to the lowest bidders even when they are not Navajo.

"When it says Navajo preference, it means exactly that, that Navajos should be first," he said.

Another speaker said he'd like to see an open bidding process, adding that he'd been outbid on a construction job because he added in the tribe's 4 percent business tax while the winning non-Navajo bidder did not. In an open bidding system, he could have modified his bid or at least have made clear the reason it was higher.

Instances like these, Nez says, are why enforcement of Navajo preference and an open bidding process could help Navajo entrepreneurs secure more contracts. In addition, he'd like to see the Navajo Nation negotiate with Navajo bidders.

"It's a win win for everybody. Give us an opportunity to negotiate," he said.

Ralph Tsosie, another participant, said, "Transparency - we'd like to know who the low bidder was."

Another idea presented was to establish a Navajo-owned bank.

Suzy Baldwin, a consultant, said Navajo government employees need more training to understand how to help business owners.

In a prepared statement after the three-hour forum, Shelly said, "All the different ideas and comments from the Business Leaders Roundtable will be taken into consideration and reviewed by the Economic Development Division. We will work 150 percent to help our Navajo business leaders and we are looking at putting Navajo business information online."

Though thankful Shelly took time to listen, Nez still sees Navajo preference as a gateway to help Navajo businesses thrive.

"I am in a daily fight," he said. "I am bidding and fighting for contracts. When the Navajo Nation says 'Navajo first' with Navajo preference, it shouldn't be that difficult, but it is."

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