Gaming czar: Newest casino off to a strong start

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Feb. 16,2012

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I t's been a little more than three weeks now since the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise opened its newest casino and things couldn't be better, according to CEO Bob Winter.

"It's going very good, above our expectations," he said in an interview this week.

And the good news, at least as far as the Navajo Nation is concerned, is that the Northern Edge Navajo Casino in Upper Fruitland, N.M., is attracting more than just Navajos, with a large number Anglos and people of Asian descent patronizing the place too.

This is in marked contrast to the situation at the other two tribal casinos - Fire Rock and Flowing Waters, which attract a predominantly Navajo clientele.

Northern Edge is still, however, not fully open and restaurant workers are still being hired.

The restaurant will offer full service but currently only the buffet is open, because in the gaming industry, even food servers must undergo a lengthy approval process including a full background check by the Navajo Gaming Regulatory Office.

The casino has 311 employees, 61 short of being fully staffed.

Winter said he is hoping to fill the remaining positions within three to four weeks. At this point, 85 percent of Northern Edge employees are Navajo or spouses of Navajos, compared to about 90 percent at Fire Rock, he said.

Meanwhile, casino operations have encountered only one glitch since opening - an alarm that goes off for no reason.

It happens about once a week and has "become a little upsetting," Winter said, because when people become accustomed to hearing an alarm with no emergency, they tend to start ignoring it.

Besides attracting a broader ethnic mix than Fire Rock and Flowing Waters, Northern Edge seems to be pulling in more high rollers, early analysis shows.

Northern Edge is attracting a large number of big players from Colorado who come south because New Mexico doesn't have limits on betting that Colorado has.

These are people who spend more time playing and usually bet higher, and are interested in table games. To accommodate them, Northern Edge offers baccarat, something the gaming enterprise isn't even considering for Fire Rock.

Fire Rock customers mainly play the slots though there is some action at the tables, Winter noted.

The gaming enterprise took a risk by opening a new casino at this time, when many are feeling the effects of the recession.

While a handful, including Fire Rock, show healthy gains over the last year, a number of other casinos have had to lay off workers or cut back in some other way.

Fire Rock, said Winter, is still on a growth curve, with better revenues in 2011 than the year before.

The gaming enterprise refuses to release exact numbers, but Winter said Fire Rock's revenue gains this past year were double digit. Nor has the number of players decreased, he added.

Winter also dismissed reports that customers are deserting Fire Rock for other casinos because of bigger payoffs.

"Our payoffs here are a big as any in the state," he said, adding that Fire Rock can still claim to have "the loosest slots in the state."

As for Northern Edge, he said it's still too early to say how big its customer base will be.

"We'll know better in three months," when gamblers who are trying out Northern Edge decide whether they want to continue playing there or go back to their former casinos.

Winter pointed out that the area's other casinos aren't ignoring the new competition. Many are offering promotions and increased free play, all in an effort to win back their players.

He also pointed out that Northern Edge has a lot more competition that Fire Rock does. At Fire Rock, the nearest competitor is 80 miles away, at Sky City Casino. The nearest competitor to Northern Edge is just three miles away.

The gaming enterprise is already looking at building a hotel to complement the new casino.

Winter said the hotel industry in Farmington is booming and it's not uncommon to find most if not all of rooms occupied on weekends, so there's room for another hotel in the area.

The question is who would finance it, the tribe or an independent hotel developer. Winter said a casino and hotel under the same owner could coordinate marketing and promotions more easily.

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