HEATHER SCOFIELD/Durango Herald
The newest casino to hit the area doesn’t have the Sky Ute Casino Resort shaking in its boots. Instead, casino executives at the Ignacio facility say the competition is welcome.
“We know that competition breeds excellence, and Sky Ute Casino Resort is definitely up for the challenge,” said Ben Fernandez, executive director of marketing for the casino.
As the Navajo Nation prepares to open its newest casino near Farmington this month, the Northern Edge Navajo Casino, officials with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s casino say they’re not worried.
“While we don’t have a crystal ball to know what the impact will actually be in the marketplace, we believe it will be minimal,” Fernandez said.
Barbara Cogswell, group sales coordinator for the casino, agreed.
“Competition always makes you better, and it helps the community by creating jobs and economic growth,” Cogswell said.
The Northern Edge Navajo Casino, located off of Bisti Highway on Indian Service Road 36, is slated to open Monday.
Navajo officials said this week they hope their new $60 million facility will draw patrons from the Ute-owned casinos in Ignacio and Towaoc, particularly those who dislike Colorado’s betting-limit laws. But the competition will be friendly, and the casinos’ combined marketing efforts could serve to benefit the economies for each of the Native American tribes and their surrounding communities, said Raymond Etcitty, chief operating officer and general council for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.
“Maybe we can create a type of loop for casino visitors,” Etcitty said.
In his experience, Etcitty said, “symbiotic” relationships form when multiple gaming facilities pop up in a region. The facilities’ combined marketing efforts draw more tourists to a region in general, and it can create a casino culture of sorts where visitors tend to travel between the attractions and take in other sites and tourist opportunities along the way.
“Anytime you bring new casinos into an area, it creates a synergy,” Etcitty said.
Not everyone’s outlook is so rosy, though.
Joe Keck, director of the Small Business Development Center of Southwest Colorado, said there could be reason for worry and The Sky Ute Casino Resort could see some losses in the face of new competition.
“My concern would be that there is a finite regional market demand that is pretty saturated now,” Keck said.
Etcitty said the draw of attractions in and around Durango have helped the Navajo Nation, despite the more than one-hour-plus drive that separates Durango and the New Mexico casino. As the Navajo Nation looks to fill more than 400 jobs at the casino, he said many employees with some of the Nation’s 16 business enterprises and gaming facilities have requested transfers to Northern Edge with hopes of having a new home that’s close to attractions such as Durango Mountain Resort, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the many gourmet-dining opportunities the area boasts. Many others from outside the area interested in moving here also are applying, he said.
And just as the new casino is drawing new residents, Navajo officials are banking on projections that the region’s unique combination of tourist attractions will draw new patrons, too.
The Navajo Nation’s gaming enterprise also plans to do its part, Etcitty said.
Northern Edge is one of multiple casinos run by the Navajo Nation. The tribe will be marketing the Farmington facility to residents and visitors on the tribe’s vast swath of reservation land. And patrons at all of their casinos will be encouraged to make the trip to the Four Corners through initiatives such as member cards and perks that can be used interchangeably between the Navajo casinos, Etcitty said. Vacation packages that include Durango-area destinations also will be offered, he said.
And the casino is expected to grow in the months and years ahead.
The Navajo Nation already is working to secure the financing needed to expand the casino with hotel facilities. The hotel’s size and the national chain name it will boast has not yet been determined, Etcitty said.
The casino, which is 60,000 square feet in size and is only the second place on Navajo land where alcohol legally can be consumed and served, is flush with culturally significant decor and some of the latest casino technologies and games.
From thumbprint security technologies to virtual-reality games and the newest releases of popular slot machines such as “Godzilla” and “Michael Jackson,” Etcitty said, “we’re trying to bring a little Vegas into the area.”
Even the old-fashioned slot machines that still run with reels have LCD screens with animated images that dance over the players’ spinning bells and cherries, said Paul Hamm, director of slots.
But the “buy-local” and culturally focused mentalities of the region will play an equally strong role in the casino’s operations, casino workers said.
The multiple restaurants in the casino will use locally grown produce and meats. And the restaurants plan to serve cultural fare such as lamb stew and Navajo tacos from the casino’s open kitchens.
“Everyone says local tastes better,” Etcitty said, and to ensure that’s available, they’ll buy out vendors’ supplies at local flea and farmers’ markets if they have to.
Other products and contract services the casino needs will be obtained locally whenever possible, as well, he said.
Tribe officials said they expect the facility will be overrun on opening day, leaving a full parking lot and lines several people deep at each slot machine.
Cogswell and Fernandez wished them only success.
“I think the new casino is a plus,” Cogswell said, “They’ll contribute to tourism levels for both (Farmington and La Plata County) communities.”