Northern Edge Casino marks 4-year anniversary

Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise CEO says casino creates jobs and revenue for communities

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON — Northern Edge Navajo Casino opened its doors four years ago, and, today, the casino is still expanding its services and employment opportunities.

Providing those opportunities remains a goal for Derrick Watchman, CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. Watchman has held the position since January 2013.

Northern Edge is the third casino opened by the gaming enterprise, which also operates three casinos in Arizona: Fire Rock Navajo Casino in Church Rock Chapter, Flowing Water Navajo Casino in Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter and Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort in Leupp Chapter.

Together, the four casinos employ 1,200 people. Northern Edge has approximately 300 employees, 86 percent of whom are Navajo.

“We create jobs, we create wages,” Watchman said about Northern Edge in a telephone interview last week.

Many of those jobs allow Navajo professionals to stay close to home while providing steady income and revenue for the surrounding communities, he said.

Northern Edge Casino is among the local employers that have endorsed San Juan County's ACT Inc. Certified Work Ready Community designation.

Northern Edge is located approximately a mile west of the N.M. Highway 371 and Navajo Route 36 junction in Upper Fruitland Chapter.

In addition to gaming, the facility offers dining, live entertainment and Navajo arts and crafts in its gift shop.

It is also one of two casinos under the Navajo Nation that contributes revenue to the state.

In November, the New Mexico Gaming Control Board released the third quarter "net win" numbers for Indian casinos in the state. The "net win" refers to the amount wagered on gaming machines, minus the amount paid out in cash and non-cash prizes and state or tribal regulatory fees. Net win is not considered to be a casino's net profit, according to the gaming control board.

In the third quarter, the Navajo Nation's net win was $19.3 million, a combined total from Fire Rock and Northern Edge.

The gaming control board reported that in the third quarter, tribes operating casinos paid a total of $16.3 million to the state treasurer. That revenue is deposited into the state’s general fund, according to the board.

Although the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is still in its infancy, it continues to attract attention from national organizations.

Watchman noted that Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, will meet with the gaming enterprise on Monday in Window Rock, Ariz. Stevens is also scheduled to address the Navajo Nation Council before the start of the winter session later that day.

Watchman called Stevens' visit an "honor," saying it adds to the recognition Navajo gaming has received since its creation in September 2006.

Hostess and cashier Calandra Begay serves a customer on Wednesday at Northern Edge Navajo Casino in Fruitland.

In 2014, the Navajo Nation approved purchasing 67.39 acres of land at N.M. Highway 371 and Navajo Route 36. According to Watchman, the tribe is working with the federal government to have the land put into trust.

When then-Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed a resolution into law approving the land purchase, it stated the land will be used for commercial development by the gaming enterprise, the Upper Fruitland Chapter and the tribe's Division of Economic Development.

Watchman said the gaming enterprise remains interested in developing the area.

One plan for the future is to construct a hotel and conference rooms at Northern Edge, he said.

Watchman said he visits Northern Edge at least once a month. During his visits, he receives reports from team members about the casino and interacts with employees. He said he also goes onto the gaming floor to meet customers, which gives him information about customer service and areas of improvements.

He said he learned the importance of interacting with employees and customers from former Navajo Chairman and President Peterson Zah.

Watchman, who worked for the Zah administration in the 1990s, said he remembers the former president visiting chapter houses and listening to concerns directly from community members.

“There’s nothing like getting out there and meeting the people,” Watchman said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

Bartender Savanah Smiley works the bar on Wednesday at Northern Edge Navajo Casino in Fruitland.