The CEO of Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise hopes casinos will bring more prosperity to the Southwest tribe

Robert T. Winter is the CEO of Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. Selected in May 2007 to this position by the Navajo Nation Economic Development Committee, Winter has more than three decades of experience in the casino industry, most recently as  vice president and general counsel for Foxwoods Resort Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe near Ledyard, Conn.

How is Navajo different from other tribal gaming?

Navajo is unique in my view within Indian Country. It is obviously the largest Native American tribe in the country. Its government system has three branches: The Executive, the Judicial and the Legislative. They function much like the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Presidency and the Supreme Court. Legislation is passed only after it goes through a series of committees that review it. That includes the gaming legislation that created my office. That was approved by council after it went through a number of committees and was eventually signed by the president.

Over the years, the Navajo have had opportunities to pass gaming referenda, but until recently those were always voted down. What's changed?

It was cultural. There was a religious aspect to the position that tribal members took. It was obviously not an easy decision and when it did pass it was fairly close. I think one of the reasons that people changed their positions is that there is serious unemployment on the Navajo Nation. That situation gets worse because most of their industry is tied to natural resources – coal and uranium. Those industries have suffered pretty badly. I think that, in a way, helped the decision in terms of whether there should be gaming or not.

Are there any concerns about opening a, multi-million dollar business at this time of economic crisis?

We did a financial feasibility study on this location by a national company a little over a year ago. It was very, very favorable. The economic turndown and gas prices may, in a way, help out our particular situation. Our nearest competitor is 90 miles away and, based on our analysis, people travel to that location. We’re closer to the population source here, so we may actually be somewhat helped by the gas situation and the cost of travel.

We believe that our market is pretty stable here, for the size of our facility.

Your main feeder market is Gallup, with a 40,000 population, correct?

Yes, Gallup has 70 hotels and it’s primarily a stop off for tourists who are going into the reservation, to the various sites and locations there. It also is a location where industries that are on the reservation or in and about Gallup house their employees who are working on projects.

So in addition to the population, they have a large number of hotels that we believe we can cater to, to also increase the capacity at the casino.

Will the 300,000-member Navajo tribe itself be a feeder market for you?

We’re locating the casinos, hopefully, in areas where we can attract new money onto the reservation. Gallup is one area where we believed we’d be able to do that. On the other hand, Navajos travel all the way to Sky City and to Ute Mountain to enjoy gaming. So we believe we’ll get a substantial number of people who are going to those facilities to come to our location.

WIll the casino have a marked impact on Navajo unemployment?

At this first casino we’re going to employ 274 people. At this point close to 90 percent of them are Navajos. So we expect to have a significant impact with respect to unemployment. Our next facility will probably employ somewhere in the thousands. We’re looking at another location near Flagstaff. If the plans remain as they are, 90 percent of those individuals will be Navajo. So we expect to help out greatly the unemployment situation. Is it going to drop unemployment from 56 percent to 40 percent? No. We’re not going to have the kinds of facilities that have tens of thousands of jobs. But we are providing significant employment and education and training for Navajo people who can then take that and market themselves elsewhere. At the same time we’ll be adding capital to the nation.

Gaming has had such a powerful impact on tribes nationwide. What impact do you think it will have  on this vast Navajo reservation?

The advantage that we hope to provide is adding money for tribal infrastructure and education and developing resorts that will employ relatively large numbers of Navajo. But we’re not going to bring any individuals wealthy.

What are your biggest obstacles?

Well, obviously a big challenge is this downturn in the economy. We have to make our facilities the ones that people will want to come to. We have to make them relatively unique compared to our competition. Those are going to be our challenges. Navajo is situatied as such that there are many good locations, but access is an issue. So we have to work very diligently to study a place before we make a decision as to where we’re going to put a casino. Access to an area, and infrastructure is always an issue when you have to make a decision as to whether the cost is worth the effort.

We talked about the challenges and obstacles, but what are your hopes for the properties?

My desire is to build something – no matter what size – that the Navajo people can be proud of and that they’ll know that people who are visiting will enjoy and that will bring them a little bit of Navajo culture.

All of the facilities we’re building will concentrate on Navajo culture.