1st Navajo gaming chief say tribe still can cash in

by Felicia Fonseca
Gallup, New Hampshire (AP) 9-07

Just outside this northwestern New Mexico city lies 21 acres of Navajo Nation trust land nestled between Interstate 40 and the railroad tracks.

It's a prime spot, says Bob Winter, to build the tribe's first casino – a projected 27,000 square-foot temporary building where visitors can sit down for a bite to eat and press their luck at slot machines or table games while surrounded by hints of Navajo culture in the building's design.

The Navajo Nation is years behind other tribes in developing casinos. Navajos twice voted against gaming on the reservation before approving it in 2004.

“I think they think they got into it a little late, but certainly it's not too late, given the size of the Navajo reservation,” said Winter, who was tapped as the tribe's first-ever gaming chief earlier this year.

“Based on financial and feasibility studies, there's still plenty of room to develop profitable casinos on the reservation,” he said in an interview this week with The Associated Press.

Winter, a New Jersey lawyer, has worked with several tribes on resort development projects and casino management. Since his hiring in June on the Navajo Nation, he's worked to identify other marketable sites for casinos on the reservation and secured a $100 million line of credit for development, which is pending Tribal Council approval.

It's evident he's had little time for anything unrelated to casinos. The walls in his downtown Gallup office are bare. Golfing, he says, no longer fits in his schedule. And his six grandsons back home in New Jersey are missing their “Pop Pop.”

Winter has a two-year contract with the tribe in which he's paid $190,000 a year. The occasional blackjack player has been living in a hotel suite since he arrived in Gallup.

He is hopeful by the end of his contract to start a temporary casino near Gallup, build a permanent structure near that one and have a second casino – possibly near Flagstaff, Ariz. – in the works.

“I think that would be a significant economic boost to the nation,” he said.

Winter spent the early part of his career in law enforcement, prosecuting casino-related crimes in New Jersey. He later served as general counsel for the Foxwoods Resort Casino and to its development company in Connecticut.

He also oversaw the construction and design of the Gila River tribe's Vee Quiva Casino, which opened in 1997, and helped with the initial planning of the tribe's Wild Horse Pass hotel.

“I regard this as a project I can get involved in at this point in my life that can accomplish something for the people,” the 65-year-old said.

Winter says there are more than 50 hotels in Gallup, and the city draws more than one million visitors a year. There are 14 million drivers a year that travel along I-40 near Gallup, he said.

“Those three things combine for a successful casino,” he said. “If we build other amenities such as a hotel, the property becomes marketable to other types of entertainment, to other types of business.”

Navajo officials are planning a total of six casinos – four in Arizona and two in New Mexico – that they say could bring in $100 million a year to the nation's coffers.

The Gallup-area casino's closest competition would be about 80 miles away, and for Flagstaff, about 45 miles to the southwest.

While many tribal casinos are big moneymakers, Winter said gaming on the Navajo Nation won't cure its economic ills.

“What gaming can provide to them is sufficient money to assist their standard of living and provide jobs,” he said.

The timeline for all six casinos is uncertain. Winter said there are a number of issues that are keeping the tribe from developing in some areas.

“There's some nice locations, but usually those locations require an interchange, require to get over the railroad tracks, which costs tens of millions of dollars just to do that,” he said.

The Navajo Nation's first casino would be along I-40 in the Gallup area, but Winter said the exact location hasn't been chosen. If everything goes as planned, he said visitors could be walking through the casino doors by June. He notes, though, that there always are glitches.

“Sometimes you can expedite those, sometimes things go better than you thought they would,” he said.