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

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

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