Tribal casinos expand and go upscale

by Jason Begay

Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

The Navajo Nation's first casino opened in 2008 with a dramatic design -- a simple, massive structure shaped like a tent. Prominently located between Interstate 40 and the red-rock cliffs just east of Gallup, N.M., it's a shell of tensioned membrane more than two stories high, with a name that evokes its setting: Fire Rock.

Inside the Fire Rock Casino, more than 700 slot machines are lined up throughout the dimly lit gaming floor with the precision of a manicured lawn. There are card tables at the far end, a food court and a stylish wood-motif restaurant called Cheii Grill & Pub, which attempts to lure families as well as gamblers with a weekly seafood buffet and a 20-foot-wide TV.

The Navajo Nation's fourth casino, according to the tribe's plans, will be even more attractive than Fire Rock. Twin Arrows Resort and Casino, about 20 miles east of Flagstaff, Ariz., is a $150 million project with a gracefully curving rock-slab exterior accented by turquoise lighting. When it opens in a few months, its interior will feature Navajo artwork and desert plants, nearly 1,100 slot machines, a high-stakes betting room, a convention space, a hotel with 90 rooms, a top-of-the-line restaurant and an oyster bar. Next year, if the plan holds, 200 more hotel rooms and a spa will be added. Navajo gaming officials are shooting for a four-diamond AAA rating: Refined, stylish, offering a range of high-end hospitality.

"The resort was always meant to get the attention of the tourists," says Johnny Naize, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. "We're hoping one of these days to put in a golf course."

Many other tribes throughout the West are following suit, exponentially expanding their casino operations to include luxury attractions and trying to match the fancy destinations on the Las Vegas strip.

It's the latest twist on a long-term trend. Tribal casinos have been a growing industry for over three decades; even before Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, tribes were trying to assert their sovereignty by opening casinos on reservation land as a means to increase revenue and jobs independent of the federal government. Nationwide, tribal casinos generated about $27.6 billion in revenue in 2011, according to the Arizona Indian Gaming Association. In the top three Western states, California's tribal casinos grossed $6.8 billion in 2010 (number one nationally); Washington tribes made about $2 billion in revenue the same year (number five nationally), according to an oft-cited source, the Indian Gaming Industry Report, while Arizona tribes reported about $1.8 billion in revenue in 2012.

The Office of Indian Gaming, an arm of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, has reviewed at least 60 proposals from Western tribes seeking gaming compacts with the federal government since 2007. Of those, the gaming office approved all but three. Western tribes currently have at least 30 casino construction or expansion projects under way, including:

• In Idaho, three reservations -- home to the Kootenai, Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes -- are expanding their casinos with some type of resort, hotel or event center.

• In Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw have approved a $20 million casino expansion project, which includes adding a golf course and hotel.

• In Washington, the Yakama Nation is awaiting financing for a $90 million expansion of its Legends Casino to include a 200-room resort and spa. And the Snoqualmie Tribe is considering expanding its casino and adding a 340-room hotel, a conference center and a theater.

• In California, there are about a dozen tribal casino projects in the works, including a $36 million addition to the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians casino that will feature a 150-room hotel, swimming pool, hot tub, cabanas and fitness room.

• In Wyoming, the Northern Arapaho Tribe opened a new casino hotel last year, featuring a "luxury suite," about 90 other rooms, and stables for those who bring horses -- a casino experience already ranked four-and-a-half stars by customers who comment on TripAdvisor.com.

• In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation is building an 86-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites, complete with pool and convention space, next to its Glacier Peaks Casino. Tribal Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. hopes that the new hotel will help "promote the many other attractions here on the reservation," reports the Great Falls Tribune.

Putting aside some controversial issues -- which have to do with financing casinos, partnering with white-owned casino companies, sharing revenue with state governments, selling out tribal culture and encouraging gambling addiction -- the trend toward luxurious casinos is basically an attempt to attract more customers with more money to spend. Tribal and gaming officials hope these projects will help lure business from beyond reservation borders, a market many tribes have found difficult to break.

"We reach capacity during the weekends," says Ron Olson, general manager of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' Fort Hall Casino near Pocatello, Idaho. "But a majority of our business is local." The same goes for the Navajos' Fire Rock Casino, and many others that are not in major urban areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Most Western tribes are located far from urban areas, and the typical gaming floor and adjoining restaurant in rural casinos are not much of a tourist destination. "In order to attract a new audience, we need to build a hotel," says Brett Magnan, regional director of Ovations Hospitality and Gaming, the Florida-based management company hired to lead the Fort Hall Casino expansion. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes opened their $47 million, 156-room hotel and events center beside I-15 last summer, and now they're planning to expand the existing casino and add new attractions, including a water park.

The Navajo Nation is making the same kind of bet, hoping that Twin Arrows will draw customers from Flagstaff, population 66,000, home to Northern Arizona University and a popular getaway for Phoenix residents going hiking and skiing. Derrick Watchman, the CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, the company created to manage the tribe's casino operations, says that the 160-acre casino resort will also draw from the heavy tourist traffic heading to Arizona's most popular landmark. "The Grand Canyon receives millions of visitors each year. We'll have a good mix of folks."

Although it has yet to finalize financing for the $90 million project, the Yakama Nation in central Washington is also banking on a resort to create a larger customer base. The tribe's Legends Casino mostly attracts customers within a 30-mile radius in the surrounding farm country, says General Manager John MacClain, but the expansion could help attract more from the Tri-Cities area, Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, in southeastern Washington, which was recently dubbed the fastest growing area in the country.

Magnan, who is managing the Fort Hall expansion, says tribes do not go about these projects lightly. "It's very calculated," he said. "It's an expensive, complex process." A single slot machine can cost upwards of $10,000, plus $5,000 for the related tech and personnel infrastructure.

The trend shows up in Tucson, Ariz., during the sixth annual Tribal Casino & Hotel Development Conference, held in February at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe's Casino del Sol Resort, which would look right at home on the Las Vegas strip. The Casino del Sol rises 10 stories and includes suites with double balconies, 1,300 slot machines and at least a half-dozen restaurants and bars (one poolside), all trimmed with Native American art.

Donna Edmondson, a Cherokee who's a partner in YWS Edmondson, a Native-owned architecture firm that's designed casinos in Las Vegas, Asia and on U.S. reservations, moderates a conference session titled "Understanding Your Tribal Client & Their Market." Her speakers emphasize weaving tribal symbols and culture into casino designs, incorporating amenities like waterfalls, and reaching out with social media, all in the quest for high-end customers.

Charles "Chief" Boyd, a Cherokee who's a partner in Thalden Boyd Emery Architects -- which has worked with nearly a hundred tribes building more than $2 billion of casino projects -- reports the math on parking garages: A parking space in a garage typically generates $22 per day on the casino floor, and customers come even when it's snowing. "Parking garages are huge," Boyd says.

Boyd's firm's highlights include the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino (a project of the Pojoaque Pueblo in Santa Fe, N.M., featuring a Hilton Hotel and three golf courses), a 10-story hotel at the Umatilla Tribe's Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Oregon, and the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe's Paragon Casino Resort in Louisiana, which has more than 2,000 slots, dice-rolling, poker, off-track betting, 500 hotel rooms, golf, spas, a multiplex cinema and alligator shows (noon, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.) in an artificial swamp in the middle of casino. "When they feed the chickens to the alligators," Boyd says, "the place is packed."

Jason Begay is an assistant professor and director of Native American Journalism Projects in the University of Montana School of Journalism. Formerly he worked for The Navajo Times, The Oregonian and The New York Times. John Dougherty, a freelancer based in Rimrock, Ariz., contributed to this story.

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