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N.M. governor signs Navajo Nation gaming compact
Friday, November 7, 2003

The nation's largest tribe got one step closer to joining the $14 billion Indian gaming industry on Thursday with the approval of a compact by the state of New Mexico.

Navajo Nation leaders joined Gov. Bill Richardson (D) at the state capitol for the formal signing of the agreement, which limits gaming to To'hajiilee, an urban community located near Albuquerque. "It's an honor today to lend a hand to the Navajos of the To'hajiilee Chapter in a goal they've sought for many years - the ability as a sovereign nation to engage in Indian gaming," Richardson said.

To'hajiilee is more than 100 miles from the main Navajo Reservation, where the majority of residents in prior polls have objected to gambling for religious reasons. But To'hajiilee leaders have fought for the right to open a casino. With Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, just 13 miles away, they see the potential for tapping into a market that nearly every other tribe in the state has benefited from in recent years.

Last quarter, the 11 of 13 tribes with compacts generated more than $107 million in slot machine revenues, a record amount. The figure doesn't include the revenues they earned on table games, hotels and other amenities at casino resorts that dot the state's landscape.

The majority, around 60 percent, of those revenues were generated by tribes in the Albuquerque area. Four Pueblos -- Acoma, Isleta, Sandia and Santa Ana -- have major facilities within driving distance of the city. Laguna Pueblo just opened a $60 million casino so figures aren't available from the tribe yet.

The To'hajiilee casino will be built on land near I-40, the major highway in the state. Its closest competitor would be Laguna's Route 66 Casino, also located along the interstate, which offers more than 1,200 slot machines, table games, a 3,000-seat auditorium and a nightclub and bar. The facility employs 1,200.

The exact size of the To'hajiilee casino is not yet decided. Tribal leaders say it will probably hold around 700 to 800 slot machines and could include a truck stop, hotel and restaurant. It is expected to employ up to 700 people.

The compact approved yesterday is identical to the ones signed by the other 11 tribes. It calls for the tribe to share up to 8 percent of its slot machine revenues with the state. Smaller facilities only pay 4 percent but the To'hajiilee casino probably won't qualify.

The compact, which expires in 2015, was signed by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. in September. He signed it after the Navajo Nation Council, by a 59-13 vote, approved it earlier in the month.

"I think gaming is an alternative," he said at the September 19 signing.

According to a report published by The Navajo Times this week, former Navajo President Peter MacDonald Sr. introduced representatives of a gaming company to Navajo council delegates who handle economic development issues. MAC Gaming, based in Atlantic City, N.J., said the casino could cost $150 million and would gross $836 million in five years, the paper reported. The figures were based on a facility with 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games, a hotel, restaurants, and retail and entertainment venues, the paper said.

Before the project moves forward, the tribe needs approval from the Bush administration. Richardson and Navajo leaders believe the compact will pass muster because it is identical to ones the Department of Interior approved in 2001.

Those agreements were negotiated when the tribes refused to share revenues under an earlier agreement that the Clinton administration neither endorsed nor rejected. New Mexico attorney general Patricia Madrid took the tribes to court, and they agree to make back payments. Two tribes continue to resist and are engaged in litigation over the deal.

Relevant Links:
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org

Related Stories:
N.M. tribes battle for share of casino audience (10/06)
Navajo president defends signing of gaming compact (09/23)
Navajo Nation signs compact for casino in N.M. (09/22)
Navajo Nation president considering gaming compact (09/08)
Navajo Nation council approves gaming compact (09/01)
Laguna Pueblo readies new $60M mega-casino (08/27)
N.M. tribes break another record on gaming revenue (08/08)
Navajo Nation committee approves gaming compact (08/07)
Navajo Nation left out of Indian gaming boom (07/28)

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