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2:36 PM Fri, Oct. 19th

Travel center part of Navajo plan to develop I-40 corridor

Officials with the Navajo Nation and its gambling enterprise gather for a groundbreaking ceremony for a travel center near the tribe's casino at Leupp, Ariz., east of Flagstaff, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Felicia Fonseca/AP)

Officials with the Navajo Nation and its gambling enterprise gather for a groundbreaking ceremony for a travel center near the tribe's casino at Leupp, Ariz., east of Flagstaff, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Felicia Fonseca/AP)

LEUPP, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation is bringing student interns on board as it develops and builds a travel center at the tribe's casino east of Flagstaff.

Up to 20 Navajo college students will work on the project that's expected to be complete next summer. Officials broke ground Thursday.

Plans for the travel center include a convenience store, gas station and truck service center near Twin Arrows Casino, about 25 miles from Flagstaff off Interstate 40. Navajo culture will be showcased throughout and tribal members will be given preference for the 200 construction jobs and the 35 full-time jobs.

The students are paid and can earn college credit by working on the design and construction of the travel center, as well as learning about management, marketing and human resources. Eight have been selected already. Others will be chosen from tribal and state universities.

"We really lifted the hood and showed them all the inner workings of this business," said Brian Parrish, interim chief executive of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

Tribal lawmakers finalized a funding agreement for the $10 million project earlier this year. The grant and loan money comes from a fund established through a $554 million settlement of a lawsuit in 2014 that alleged the federal government mismanaged the tribe's natural resources.

The funding came with a requirement that the project has an educational component, hence the internship program, Parrish said.

Kaitlin Edwards has been interning on the project for a few months, at times juggling school work at Northern Arizona University. She was tasked with conducting a survey to see what people want from a travel center. The overwhelming response was clean restrooms.

"The fact that I'm in charge of something has been a huge step up," said the 21-year-old junior from Tuba City. "Before this program, I didn't feel like I was an adult."

Tristan Swatts graduated from Northern Arizona University this spring and branched out from his studies in science to business safety through the internship program. He said it's helped him network with tribal officials and realize the need for economic development on the reservation.

"I thought before, I wanted to leave the reservation. But what they've done is create something new and introduce me to the idea of helping the people," said the 22-year-old from Sanders on the Arizona-New Mexico border.

The tribe opened the casino in 2013. It is the largest of four Navajo casinos in Arizona and New Mexico that employ 1,200 people. The tribe's 27,000 square-mile reservation stretches into Utah.

The tribe has a long-term plan for the region that includes housing, entertainment, a shopping center and other businesses to boost revenue for the tribe and create jobs.