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Derrick Watchman on Expansion, How to Take Indian Gaming to the Next Level in 2015

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Navajo tribal member Derrick Watchman stands watch over his tribe’s casinos, three in New Mexico, and one in Arizona, but he’s hoping to add more to the drawing board. As CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, he oversees $80 million a year in new winnings revenue that the casinos (Gallup, Farmington, and Shiprock in New Mexico; and Flagstaff in Arizona) bring in annually.

It wasn’t until 2004, after three attempts, that the Navajo people finally voted in favor of gaming, and today, that vote has allowed the tribe to chase bigger endeavors. “Now, a decade later, we employ 1,400 employees and return millions in revenue to the Nation, and the states we operate in,” Watchman said. “And we look forward to continued growth in the next ten years.”

The most recent step forward is a newly negotiated unified gaming compact with New Mexico that would ensure Class III gaming operations through 2037.

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Navajo Nation Council Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates called the compact “fair for our people,” even though the revenue-sharing formula that brings in revenue to the state increases from 9 percent to 10.75 percent over the life of the compact. And the revised provisions require approval from the state legislature with a vote expected during their current session, which continues until the end of March. “The agreement has some pros and cons, but there’s some provisions in it that we think will be very beneficial,” Watchman said.

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, the NNGE leader pointed to a strong possibility of a fourth casino on tribal-owned land west of Albuquerque. “It’s no secret that that location could be a possible site over time.”

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Meanwhile, Twin Arrows, Arizona’s lone tribally-owned facility that opened in 2013 is proving financially healthy. Asked about the possibility of a second property in Arizona, Watchman said, “I’m updating our demographic and financial feasibility studies and exploring that concept. We’ve already admitted that an ideal location would be next to a reservation border town like our existing casinos, and one of the last border towns is Page [Arizona]. It’s obviously a seasonal market, but Page is an area we’re looking at,” he said.

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“We’ve been advised by tribal government not to focus on anything internally, like Chinle or Tuba City, but I’m also looking at a couple of other smaller locations as possibilities.”

The Twin Arrows compact runs until 2022. “We did have our challenges at Twin Arrows, but I was able to report to our new Navajo Council that we broke even in 2014, and are looking optimistically at 2015,” he said.

Like the rest of the country’s economy, Indian gaming in the Southwest took a hit during the recession with growth slowly returning. “Based on the spin I get from our customers, gaming is still viable. Things are gradually getting better, and I believe we’ll improve marginally over the next decade.”

In order to do that, however, he says Indian Country gaming needs to continually reinvent itself in order to remain sustainable. “We need to refine our product offerings, and add new amenities – the kind of retooling you’ve seen in Las Vegas. Demographics have changed and Indian gaming needs to keep up.”

Watchman admits he doesn’t have the future figured out yet, but acknowledges his mission going forward is to “add pizzazz and increase the draw. Indian casinos need to reprogram themselves to keep up with the changing times and take tribal gaming to the next level.”