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Arizona tribe votes to take over Skywalk management

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. >> A northwestern Arizona tribe has voted to take over management of the Grand Canyon Skywalk from the Las Vegas developer who built it.

David Jin partnered with the Hualapai Tribe to build the horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts out from the Grand Canyon on the reservation. But the two sides have been locked in a contract dispute for the past year over revenue shares and an incomplete visitor center.

The Tribal Council voted Tuesday to declare eminent domain over the management contract and provide $11 million in compensation to Jin. The amount is about one-tenth of what Jin has said is fair market value for the $30 million investment.

“The Tribe did not ask for this dispute,” Councilman Charles Vaughn said in a statement. “But we have made a sincere effort through private negotiations with Mr. Jin, and he still refuses to make the most basic concessions and complete the work he promised. His participation has been unproductive and created countless delays. At this point, there are simply no other options.”

The Tribal Council passed an eminent domain ordinance last year that Jin had suspected was aimed at him. He went to federal court to try to keep the tribe from severing the Skywalk contract under the ordinance, but the judge said the tribe had not sought to enforce it and told Jin he must first exhaust tribal court remedies.

A separate case that Jin filed in tribal court to force arbitration also was dismissed, giving Jin the option of returning to federal court.

Jin’s attorney, Mark Tratos, said the tribe’s action is a desperate attempt to avoid the embarrassment of explaining how ticket revenues evaporated under its watch and to keep from paying Jin millions of dollars in management fees owed to him. 

Under an agreement with the tribe, Jin is supposed to split revenues with the tribe for 25 years in exchange for his investment.

“They want all decisions to be made by tribal judges that they hire, fire and pay, and have resisted all efforts to have an independent judge or arbiter fairly review the facts,” Tratos said. “Mr. Jin has been their partner for more than 20 years, and his counsel asserts the tribe has awarded themselves this draconian power to strip Mr. Jin’s company of its constitutional rights.”

The tribe denied that the action is a way to avoid explaining the Skywalk’s finances and reiterated its stance Wednesday that Jin hasn’t fulfilled contractual obligations to complete a visitor center that tourists must pass through to access the Skywalk and failed to account for funding.

The American Arbitration Association ultimately agreed to hear the dispute. The tribe was facing a Friday deadline to produce financial documents and identify relevant witnesses but instead decided to walk out on arbitration, Tratos said. 

Jin approached the Hualapai Tribe in 1996 with a plan to build the Skywalk. The attraction just west of Grand Canyon National Park has about 300,000 visitors a year and is a major tourist draw for the tribe. The bridge extends 70 feet from the canyon rim and 4,000 feet above the Colorado River, is designed to withstand 100 mph winds and has shock absorbers to keep the walkway from wobbling as people pass over.

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