Large crowd at Northern Edge casino opening

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

UPPER FRUITLAND, N.M., Jan 19, 20112

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Left to right, Speaker of the Council Johnny Naize, President Ben Shelly and first lady Martha Shelly prepare to cut the ribbon Monday afternoon at the grand opening of the Northern Edge Navajo Casino in Upper Fruitland, N.M.

CENTER: Henry Blackwater, 80, from Red Valley, Ariz., won a $1,395 jackpot playing the slot machines Monday at Northern Edge Navajo Casino.

BOTTOM: Northern Edge Navajo Casino patrons waste no time as they make their way into the newly built gambling establishment Monday in Upper Fruitland, N.M.

On Monday, hundreds attended the grand opening of the Northern Edge Navajo Casino.

The cold, rain and wind did not stop people from arriving early and waiting in a line that stretched from the front entrance and across the entry drive to the parking lot.

To help combat the cold, casino employees placed patio heaters near the line of people and offered coffee.

The casino is located on Navajo Route 36, about one mile west of State Route 371 and three miles south of downtown Farmington.

Excitement filled the air as the crowd waited for the opening ceremony to start.

At one point, a man yelled "Move that bus!" echoing the kick-off phrase for the big reveal on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Later a woman shouted, "Open that door now, I said!" generating laughter from the crowd and a response from Harold Wauneka of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

"Someone is ready to play over there," Wauneka said. "If I was in charge, I would open the door right now."

Then President Ben Shelly and other officials took the stage that was set up near the south entrance doors. He waved a giant pair of scissors in the air and motioned to cut the ribbon.

"The machines are very tight but you can loosen them up," Shelly told the crowd. "You're going to win something big today."

Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tsé Daa K'aan/Upper Fruitland) joked with the audience during his speech.

"All right, how many want to go home?" Bates said as the audience laughed.

Clearly no one was going to let anything get in the way of their fun.

"I know you all are eager to get in there because today it really starts," Bates said. "Yesterday was only play time for some of us but today it starts."

Northern Edge hosted an invitation-only VIP opening Sunday, and an opening Saturday just for the employees' families.

"We look forward to a new horizon," Bates said, referring to the tribe's hope that the phenomenal success of its first casino - Fire Rock Navajo Casino in Church Rock - will continue with Northern Edge, its second full-scale gaming facility.

Due to the bad weather and number of people waiting to get inside, casino officials decided to open the doors a half hour early, at 11:30 a.m.

The crowd once again shifted when the officials made their way to the front of the entrance to cut the ribbon.

"OK, everyone count with me," said Rhonda Ray, marketing manager for Fire Rock Navajo Casino.

"One ... Two ... Three," yelled the audience.

After the ribbon cutting, Lavinia Begay was in no hurry to enter as she stood next to the glass doors and watched people rush inside. Begay drove her father, James, to the event from their home in Twin Lakes, N.M.

"I'm anxious to look inside but I'm not here to gamble," she said. "I'm just here to drive him and check it out."

Northern Edge employees and gaming enterprise members greeted the players as they entered the 85,000-square-foot building and in no time the sounds of slot machine bells and chimes filled the air.

The line for the Players Club stretched from its counter, tucked near the northeast corner, across the casino floor.

Some people did not head immediately for the slot machines, instead exploring the casino's features and amenities, which include an art-studded entry, restaurant, food court, gift shop, poker room and table-game area.

Northern Edge is a category 3 casino, meaning it can offer blackjack, craps and roulette in addition to poker and slots.

Rick Romero was waiting in line to enter the Cedar Bow, the facility's sit-down restaurant. By his side was his service dog, Princess, who seemed unfazed by all the commotion.

Romero came from Cuba, N.M., with his wife, Albina, and his mother, Christina, to attend the opening.

"We like to support anything coming to the area," he said.

Meanwhile on the other side of the casino, Henry Blackwater was waiting to collect the $1,395 jackpot he won playing "Triple Red Hot 7s," a slot machine.

People stopped to glance at the machine as it flashed the jackpot amount on its screen.

It wasn't his first jackpot - the Red Valley, Ariz., resident has in the past won $400 and $500.

"Now I'll have some money in my pocket," Blackwater said in Navajo after receiving his winnings.

Bob Winter, CEO of the gaming enterprise, said he hoped everyone enjoyed the grand opening and appreciates the aspects of Navajo culture that were integrated into the building's design.

"From what I've been told, rainy days mean good luck," he said.

Chris Barron, marketing director for Northern Edge, said the casino reached its capacity within 40 minutes of opening, and for the rest of the day there was a line of people waiting to get inside.

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