Dicey future for Northwest casinos

  When the Lummi tribe in Washington opened the Northwest's first casino 13 years ago, gambling became a jackpot, bringing in almost $1 billion a year to the region's tribes. Then last August the Lummi Casino closed its doors, blaming competition within the state as well as in Canada. Some say other closings will follow.

Lummi Casino revenues were often earmarked for education and elderly programs, and employee paychecks injected millions of dollars into the local economy. The casino employed 238 people, which is almost half the total labor force on the reservation.

The Lummi casino began to feel a financial pinch last summer, when Canada upped wager limits, extended casino hours and approved slot machines. Canadian gamblers were lured back to their side of the border.

"When Canada opened things up a little, things changed drastically," says Darrell Hillaire, vice chairman of the Lummi tribe. "Now they've got 3 million people up there in Vancouver that can stay home and gamble." He estimates that 80 percent of the casino's business came from Canadian customers.

Since the shutdown the tribe's unemployment rate has jumped to 60 percent, from 7.1 percent a year ago. Says Hillaire, "It has been a huge emotional and financial strain to the tribe."

Other tribes in Washington aren't immune to Canadian gambling changes. The Nooksack Casino, which also draws a large Canadian crowd, has downsized and cut operating expenses in half to keep its doors open.

The Washington Legislature's recent decision to allow house-bank card games like blackjack in bars and restaurants may weaken tribal gaming even more. Swinomish tribal officials are afraid they won't be able keep up. "There's just not enough to go around," says Bill Ludlow, casino manager.

*Sara Phillips