Northern Edge seeing different clientele

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 10, 2012

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T hree months after opening the Northern Edge Navajo Casino near Farmington, officials for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise have noticed differences from the tribe's first casino, Fire Rock.

One of the main differences, said Bob Winter, the enterprise's CEO, is the clientele.

"About half of the people who come to Northern Edge are non-Native," he said, adding that this is substantially higher than Fire Rock, which has about a 70 percent Native clientele.

While Fire Rock continues to see more players daily than Northern Edge, people who go to Northern Edge like to bet more at the slots and table games.

Winter said it is not unusual to see slot players waging three, four or five dollars at a time. Both casinos have between 740 and 750 slot machines.

"People are playing more aggressively at Northern Edge than at Fire Rock," Winter said.

That's part of the reason why there have been more major winners at Northern Edge in the first three months.

"We have had a quite a few people win jackpots of between $20,000 and $25,000," Winter said.

He added that recently, a woman won $44,000 in two jackpots in a single day.

The amount of play at Northern Edge by non-Natives is somewhat reassuring to enterprise officials who have been criticized ever since Fire Rock opened three years ago for the number of Navajo customers that have been flocking to the casino.

Even President Ben Shelly has said that he would rather see the enterprise make its profits off non-Navajos instead of relying so much on the Navajo customers.

But Winter said that the percentage of Navajo players at Fire Rock has consistently declined in recent years and he expects that when the new casinos open up in the next couple of years in Twin Arrows and Pinta Road, the total percentage of non-Native customers will greatly overshadow the number of Navajos who come to the casinos.

While he says Northern Edge is showing a profit, no figures have been released yet to show how well it is doing.

The New Mexico Gaming Control Board puts out figures quarterly on Indian casino slot play in the state but the figures for the first quarter of this year, January through March, have not been posted.

Those state figures show that Fire Rock is generating between $9 million and $11.5 million in slot play every three months.

"We're trying with each casino to reach a different market," he said, pointing out that Northern Edge is attracting the more affluent non-Natives in the Farmington area.

Twin Arrows is expected to cater to a lot of tourists and people who come there during the summer to get away from the hot temperatures in Phoenix.

As for Pinta Road, its location off of Interstate 40 in Arizona is expected to attract a lot of truckers.

Winter said he expects that the casino will soon be seeing even more non-Native customers because of increased emphasis on the casino's restaurants.

"This Mother's Day we will have a Mother's Day brunch and we will have them every Sunday thereafter," he said.

The brunch that is offered at Fire Rock each Sunday attracts a lot of non-Native people from the Gallup area, many of whom are not regular casino goers.

The enterprise is still looking into plans to build a hotel next to Northern Edge.

Winter said the Navajo Nation is still interested but wants a feasibility study done on its expected revenues and profits. The enterprise is looking at building a 100-bed hotel.

"This will not be a four-star hotel like the one we are building at Twin Arrows," Winter said, adding that he expects the cost to build the facility will be between $10 million and $15 million.

When asked if there were any problems at Northern Edge, Winter said the only thing not going as scheduled is filling vacancies.

There are still a number of vacancies, including in finance and marketing as well as in the restaurant.

"We are continuing to see a high turnover in employment in the restaurant," Winter said, adding that one of the problems in finding people who want to work in the restaurant is the paperwork required to get the jobs.

Winter said that the Navajo casinos are the only casinos he knows in the area which require all workers, including those who have nothing to do with the casino operation, to have full background checks.

These background checks take between 30 and 60 days but what has proven to be more of a problem are the long application forms that people have to fill out.

The paperwork is so daunting, Winter said, that some applicants just give up at that point.

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