Ever feel like stepping off a really big cliff -- like, say, the Grand Canyon? A $30 million structure, funded entirely by a Las Vegas businessman, will make that possible by St. Patrick's Day.
David Jin, who hails from Shanghai, suggested the pie-in-the-sky idea to the Hualapai tribe 10 years ago and offered to pay for it himself. Though the Native Americans will own it, Jin's take isn't bad: half the money from the sale of $25 tickets for the next 25 years.
Jin, who already brings Chinese visitors onto the Hualapai reservation, believes the appropriately-named Skywalk will greatly increase the annual average of 345,000 visitors who come to the tribe's corner of the canyon. From there, visitors can gaze toward Grand Canyon National Park, which draws 4.1 million visitors annually and has occasional problems with crowd control.
The entrance to the national park lies 90 miles east of the Skywalk construction site.
Built to survive winds of 100 miles per hour, Skywalk will be capable of holding hundreds of people at once; built-in shock absorbers will keep it from gyrating. Though open to the sky, the structure will feature glass walls and a glass floor that will allow unprecedented views of the canyon floor, 4,000 feet below.
The mighty Colorado River will be little more than a brown ribbon from the horseshoe-shaped overlook, which stretches 70 feet beyond the canyon's edge but features steel support beams buried 46 feet deep into the limestone ledge.
The distance from the canyon floor to the base of the futuristic Skywalk is more than double the height of the tallest buildings on the planet. That should be enough to seduce curious sightseers but is also enough to ruffle the feathers of tribal elders who say construction violates sacred land.
Hualapai archaeological and burial sites dot the vicinity of the Skywalk and may be the reason some workers on the project suffer from nightmares, according to local critics. Tribal legend contends that the original Hualapai emerged from the earth of the Grand Canyon.
The canyon that giveth also taketh away: a seven-month attempt to run a casino collapsed in 1995 and the tribe's river rafting and horseback riding concessions can't compete with those within the national park.
Even a publicity stunt by daredevil Robby Knievel, who jumped a side canyon in his motorcycle, didn't provide the impetus needed to overcome poverty and unemployment on among the Hualapai. More than a third of the tribe's 2,200 members don't earn enough income per year to peek above the poverty line.
Competing for gamblers with Las Vegas, two-and-a-half hours away, may have been a bad gamble but supporters are betting on a different outcome for Skywalk -- something no one else offers. Paving the 21-mile reservation entrance road would help.
A transparent structure invisible from the national park, the Skywalk project has no complaints from the Grand Canyon Trust. And it has a world of potential, offering views unavailable from any vantage point in the national park. Construction time will be just under two years when Skywalk opens in March. The project is expected to increase employment and raise revenues that the tribe can spend on health, education, and welfare for its members.