TRIBAL LEADERS

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Tribal casinos continue to expand their reach and deliver creative new offerings

By Sean Chaffin

Tribal casinos have made a massive impact in the gaming industry for decades. Millions of Americans enjoy visiting these premier casino destinations each year. Tribal properties have not only thrived but become leaders in the greater casino industry even during such trying times as seen over the last year.

Despite the pandemic of 2020, many tribal properties not only contributed to their local communities but also worked to help the industry survive and work for the well-being of their employees. As the country hopefully begins putting COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, the Native American gaming community will look to the future and many properties are already innovating, expanding and reaching out to continue offering a great experience for guests.

Currently, there are 524 tribal casinos in 29 states contributing to the American economy and improving the lives of tribe members as well as other employees. In 2019, tribal casinos produced a record $34.6 billion in gaming revenue. The industry has reported growth each year since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and many have become major enterprises, competing with private gaming companies in commercial casino markets like Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Indiana and others.

Beyond mere profits and losses, Indian casino revenue also improves the lives of tribe members through economic development, hospital and healthcare initiatives, school improvements, senior care, and other community efforts and programs. Many of these properties also embrace their Native American history in spirit and design, keeping these tribes’ culture alive for Americans around the country to see and appreciate.

The coming year should bring some major news for the industry as properties around the country unveil major expansions, renovations, partnerships and other economic efforts, and here’s a quick look at some of those to watch.

Growth and Expansion

The last year may have been rough for many industries, gaming included, but many tribes are bullish on the future and making additions and expansions to their properties in the coming year. The San Manuel Casino is located just outside Los Angeles and has become a popular destination for California gamblers. The property, owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, is now also undergoing a major expansion.

San Manuel is adding its first hotel this year, with 429 luxury rooms and suites, premium dining venues, an elevated pool experience, spa, retail spaces and a premier event venue. The $550 million project includes an elegant new entryway and rooftop lounge with views of the surrounding mountains. The opening of the casino’s expanded gaming space, dining and retail shops is set for this summer with the hotel debuting this winter.

In Michigan, Gun Lake Casino marked the property’s 10th anniversary as a premier entertainment destination in the Midwest. The property is owned by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. The casino has grown throughout the past decade and that continues with the unveiling of a $100 million expansion by the end of the summer. The development adds room for 450 more slots, 12 new table games, a larger non-smoking area, and more dining and entertainment options—with 72,000 square feet added to the existing 156,000-square-foot facility.

Oklahoma’s Choctaw Casino Durant has been a leader in the state and has been undergoing the fourth expansion in the property’s history. The latest is a $500 million project that includes the new 21-story, Sky Tower featuring 1,000 new luxury hotel rooms. Other amenities include new restaurants and bars, two additional movie theaters, and three-acres of swimming pools and more than 3,400 new slot machines— making Choctaw Casino & Resort Durant—one of the largest gaming resorts in the country. The project is set to open this summer and is expected to employ more than 1,000 people.

Also adding additional hotel space is the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, owned by the Kalispel Indians and located in Spokane, Washington. The tribe is adding a new wing to the property, with 190 additional rooms and suites. The new structure will include five connected buildings inspired by a historical piece of Native American history and culture—a fish weir. These were constructed and used by tribes as a community-focused fishing technique where members could gather to fish, trade and celebrate.

The Kalispel planned to break ground on the project in March with a completion date for early 2023. In addition to the hundreds of temporary construction jobs this project will bring to the Spokane area, the expansion will bring about 150 permanent new jobs.

In North Carolina, Harrah’s Cherokee has been undergoing a project of more than $250 million that will include 725 hotel rooms including 70 suites, a terrace pool and fitness center, parking garage, restaurant and retail space, and 175,000 square feet of conference, exhibition and meeting space. The project is set to open this fall.

No doubt other tribes across the country are already working on expansion and construction projects—providing jobs, major economic benefits to their communities, and, of course, a great gambling and entertainment experience.

New Properties and Economic Leadership

Beyond mere additions and renovations, many tribes are taking leadership roles within the greater gaming industry—expanding beyond traditional Indian gaming enterprises and fostering innovation and growth outside their own traditional locations. From new casinos to unique partnerships, tribes have shown a willingness to take the lead and work toward greater stability and growth within the sector.

Connecticut’s two tribal casinos have expanded outside their own state recently. Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, announced in early 2021 that the property was partnering to reopen the historic El San Juan Casino in Puerto Rico. Rebranded as the Foxwoods El San Juan, the casino will receive a $12.5 million facelift, and the Tropicoro entertainment venue will also return with live entertainment and events. The San Juan debuted in the 1960s and has hosted stars like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli and others. Visitors can now head to the enchanted island for a great beach getaway with some gambling fun mixed in at this historic venue.

The Mohegan tribe already owns Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and also owns or manages properties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, Canada and South Korea. The tribe is now branching out to the hotbed of American casinos—Las Vegas. Mohegan Gaming will operate the casino at the new Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, formerly the Hard Rock. The completely refurbished property is set to debut in March with the 60,000-square-foot Mohegan Sun Casino in Vegas even utilizing the company’s Momentum Rewards program.

In Florida, the Seminole Tribe has been a consistent leader in the state’s gaming industry. The tribe unveiled its “Guitar Hotel” expansion in October, 2019; a $1.5 billion project that included 195,000 square feet of gaming space, a 13.5-acre pool and lagoon experience, a 42,000-squarefoot spa and fitness center, entertainment and dining options, high-end retail stores, and 150,000 square feet of meeting space.

The Seminoles have also been leaders in corporate growth and expansion for a tribal gaming group. Along with six properties in Florida, the company also owns the Hard Rock International brand with hotels, casinos and restaurants around the world. The Seminole Hard Rock properties in Florida were among the leaders in reopening the casino industry in the U.S. last summer., which included numerous safety protocols as part of the industry leading “Safe + Sound” program.

In other expansion news, Agua Caliente opened a property in Cathedral City, California, just before Thanksgiving. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians already owns two properties in the state in Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs. That now includes a third major gaming and entertainment destination in the state. The new casino includes 30,000 square feet of gaming space, 500 slots and eight table games. An outdoor pavilion is also planned for live entertainment, food trucks and other events.

Arizona’s Gila River Hotels and Casinos group has entered a unique partnership to bring some sport-sthemed branding and amenities to its properties. The company is owned by the Gila River Indian Community, an alliance of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee Posh (Maricopa) tribes. Gila River operates three casinos in the state and in November announced a partnership with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Mercury.

The deal includes team-themed hotel rooms at Gila River’s Wild Horse Pass (Suns) and Vee Quiva (Mercury) property. Visitors will also notice an all-new collection of gaming chips and table felts donned with the Suns’ burst and Mercury planet logos at those two properties as well as the Lone Butte casino. The teams will also be reflected in other aspects around the venues and the partnership is a first for an NBA team.

Beyond that deal, Wild Horse Pass is also undergoing a major expansion this year. The $143 million project includes a second hotel tower, 22,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor conference space, two new pools, restaurants and major updates inside the casino with new colors, carpeting, lighting and more. The new hotel tower adds 205 additional rooms including 37 suites as well as a rooftop restaurant with views of the Estrella Mountains.

The success of the American tribal casino industry is a testament to a people that have overcome hardships, setbacks and great loss. Along with great economic benefits for Native American tribes, this success can serve as an inspiration and keep their spirit and way of life alive.

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