UPPER FRUITLAND — Not since Raytheon opened a manufacturing plant on Navajo land in 1989 has the Northern Navajo Agency anticipated an economic jolt like the one coming Jan. 16 with the grand opening of Northern Edge Navajo Casino.

The casino, the third in three years built on the Navajo Nation and the third gaming facility to operate in San Juan County, will create between 375 and 390 full-time jobs, said Bob Winter, CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. That means an annual payroll of between $10 million and $12 million, including salaries and benefits.

But the jobs inside the casino are just the beginning, Winter said.

"With casinos, all the commodities we purchase come from within 50 miles of the facility," he said. "With the volume of jobs created with the casino and the volume of goods and services we're paying for, this should have a residual effect in the community to allow people to keep their jobs or add jobs in the future."

An additional 1,000 temporary construction jobs were created during the year the tribe spent building the $60 million facility, Winter said.


Jobs, jobs, jobs

The job creation is expected to affect residents of all 19 chapters in the Northern Navajo Agency, especially the half-dozen communities immediately surrounding the casino and Upper Fruitland, where the 80-acre site is located. It also will trickle into the off-reservation communities in the county.


The casino is hiring with Navajo preference, and the other Navajo gaming ventures have maintained a work force that is more than 90 percent native.

The gaming enterprise still is accepting applications for Northern Edge, and officials anticipate the casino will be fully staffed by mid-December, General Manager Peter Riverso said. All applicants must pass strict background checks.

"I'm looking forward to making this very successful, not only for the tribe, but for the community, as well," Riverso said.

Applications are coming in from all over the country, said Chris Barron, marking director for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

"We're getting transfers from other properties, applications from as far away as Georgia," she said. "It's a great economic experience, a wonderful growth for the Navajo Nation. Obviously, there's a pent-up need for gaming."

The casino will open in January to a community anxious for economic, entertainment and dining opportunities, Winter said. Construction started March 1.

"I can sense the anticipation," he said. "I go shopping in Farmington, at the local food stores, and I hear people talking about it."

The 86,000-square-foot gaming floor will support 750 slot machines, six poker tables and 10 live table games, including eight blackjack tables, one craps and one roulette.

The gaming facility also will offer a full restaurant and bar, a food court, gift shop and players club. The paved parking lot has room for 1,150 cars.

"We're going to provide a good product, a very entertaining product, as well as a good restaurant product," Winter said. "We're all looking forward to the opening."


Community adjustments

The facility itself is something to see. Nestled among the sandstone bluffs south of Navajo Route 36 and barely over the reservation border outside the southwest corner of Farmington, the casino boasts Navajo-themed design and colors. The ceiling over the gaming floor, for example, was designed to imitate a Navajo rug, and the interior of the casino is painted in colors resembling sand, coral and turquoise.

The exterior of the casino, visible from across the valley, will be illuminated at night with multi-colored lights, Winter said.

The gaming facility is the first phase of a project that may include a hotel and convention center on the same property. The gaming enterprise is conducting feasibility studies on the hotel, Winter said.

The casino comes with substantial changes to the Upper Fruitland community and to the rural Navajo Route 36 corridor. The tribe installed the first stoplight on the two-lane road, at the entrance to the casino.

The first day the traffic light had power, more than 40 drivers ran the red light, said LoRenzo Bates, Tribal Council delegate representing Upper Fruitland and five other surrounding chapters.

"We're going to be going through an adjustment, growing pains," Bates said. "There will be more people, more traffic, and the crime rate probably will increase."

The Upper Fruitland Chapter, home to about 3,000 residents, will experience a population boom once the casino is open. The gaming facility will be open 24 hours per day Friday through Sunday, and 20 hours per day Monday through Thursday. That's 152 hours of gaming per week, with the building closed from 4 to 8 a.m. four days a week.

The necessary adjustments are well worth the effort, however, Bates said.

"Obviously this is bringing jobs," he said. "But it's not just jobs. It's the revenue the chapter can begin to use."

Once Upper Fruitland attains certification under the Local Governance Act, it can keep much of the gaming money local, Bates said. That cuts out the bureaucracy of sending revenue to the central government in Window Rock, Ariz., then waiting for a portion of it to come back.

The community already has a list of priorities once the dollars start coming in. At the top of the list is better fire and police presence, including substations for both, Bates said. Roads, infrastructure, entertainment venues and scholarships all made the list.

"It's not just Upper Fruitland that will benefit," he said. "It's the valley, all the way to the San Juan Chapter. Once the revenue starts coming in, we can look at the needs of the entire valley."

One of those needs is a nursing home on the reservation, Bates said.

"A lot of our people go off the reservation to nursing homes," he said. "They miss coming back to the reservation. The community would support bringing our people back onto Navajo and offering the same services there."

All the benefits begin with jobs, and the casino is offering more jobs than any other single employer to come to the reservation in decades.


Navajo economy

The opening of Northern Edge Navajo Casino is an economic event the young Navajo generation has not experienced.

The last time employment opportunities of this magnitude came to local chapters of the Navajo Nation was in the 1960s and 70s when power plants and other industries came to San Juan County's reservation communities, bringing hundreds of jobs.

 The first unit at the Four Corners Power Plant went online in 1963; that facility employs 504 people, according to August reports.

• San Juan Generating Station was built between 1976 and 1982. As of August, it employed 325.

• BHP Billiton received a permit in 1977 to mine coal from reservation land. It and New Mexico Coal employ more than 1,000 people.

• Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, part of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, was established by Congress in 1962. That company employed 117 in 2010. More recent numbers were not immediately available.

• Raytheon opened a missile plant at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in 1989. It added 180 jobs to its work force in 2007, for a total of 254 as of August.

But the promise of hundreds of jobs also is something that makes Navajo citizens leery.

Fairchild Semiconductors dedicated its Shiprock plant in September 1969. It employed nearly 600 workers in the months before the American Indian Movement took over the building, an act that prompted the company to end its contract with the Nation and close the business.

The takeover also was blamed for decades of no economic development. Businesses used the incident as an excuse to not seek contracts with the Nation.

The Nation itself has experienced major setbacks in job creation. Two once-promising companies cost the Nation $3.5 million in combined losses in 2008 when both failed.

Biochemical Decontamination Systems Manufacturing, Inc., in Shiprock, and Diné Poultry Products, a company that was supposed to go up in the Eastern Navajo Agency, both failed to make payments on loans secured through the Navajo Dam Escrow Account, prompting the banks to collect.

But even as those two businesses went under, Indian gaming was picking up.

The tribe opened its first casino, a temporary facility in Church Rock, in 2008. A small casino in Hogback opened last year. The combined jobs created by the first two casinos is 502.

The Upper Fruitland casino will add nearly 400 jobs to Navajo gaming.

Northern Edge is the biggest single employer to open its doors on reservation land in more than 20 years. It also is one of the biggest creators of jobs to hit the county in recent years, said Margaret McDaniel, director of San Juan Economic Development Service.

Hanover built a facility on Troy King Road in 1997, increasing its work force from three to 300 employees.

"Since then, we've had companies merge, including Hanover and Universal to form Exterran, and increase the number of employees, but not a new company offering that many new employment opportunities at one time," McDaniel said.

But she warns that gaming is not an economic base industry, or one that exports goods and services out of state, brings in new dollars and pays higher-than-average wages.

"These new job opportunities are significant for the Navajo Nation, however they won't replace the high-paying jobs that have been lost in the energy industry over the past two or three years," she said. "If this brings in new dollars from out-of-state, such as tourists, then it would have a more positive impact. Time will tell that story. If it is supported only by the locals, then turning over the same dollars does not have as much of a positive economic impact."