Tribal casinos expand and go upscale

  • Thunder Valley Casino Resort -- a development by the United Auburn Indian Community -- near Sacramento, California, has earned an AAA four-diamond rating, with attractions including the "Coconut Pool + Bar" and a 17-story hotel with "European spa/showers" and "320-thread count sheets."

    Courtesy Thunder Valley Casino Resort
  • Slot machines fill Snoqualmie Casino in Washington, to which tribal leaders are considering adding a hotel, conference center, and theater.

    Stuart Isett
  • Independence Day fireworks above the Navajo Nation's Fire Rock Casino in Gallup, New Mexico. The tribe now plans a luxury casino near Flagstaff, Arizona, its fourth gambling center.

    Donovan Shortey

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• 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.