Tribal casinos continue to expand their reach and deliver creative new offerings
By Sharon Harris-Zlotnick
Indian gaming throughout the U.S. continues to flourish every year, thanks to expansion and new construction. The number of tribal properties and their economic successes have created an unprecedented industry where revenues total almost half of American gaming industry income.
The 1987 Cabazon v. California court case began it all. During that legal battle, the Cabazons successfully stopped the California government’s plan to prevent instate tribes from conducting high-stakes bingo on their own reservation lands.
The case made its way up through the legal system to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Cabazons’ 1988 victory from the Court’s decision allowed all federally-recognized tribes to potentially enter into compact agreements within their own states to develop individual programs.
Over 30 years, the number of states welcoming tribal gaming grew to 29 when Indiana became the most recent state to offer tribal gaming in 2018. By late 2018, 514 metropolitan and rural tribal operations were open for business, with revenues now approaching $34 billion for 2019.
These totals disprove the original intent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988.The law was written in a way that could actually restrict tribal gaming’s growth, but it failed as tribal gaming exploded across the U.S.
The American Gaming Association’s (AGA) 2019 “State of the States” industry analysis reported that “there are now more tribal than commercial gaming properties across the country and more states with tribal gaming than commercial casino gaming.”
Dozens of today’s tribal casinos are sophisticated, full- service resorts that are located in the most popular regions nationwide. Smaller, rural tribal operations may face greater challenges, but most have discovered how to generate the highest possible revenues as they help their communities. Tribal gaming has continually grown over the past several years and, at that rate, may be on track to surpass commercial casinos by 2030.
One potential complication to this growth is land acquisition. The Obama Administration set aside 500,000 acres in trust for tribes, resulting in federal and state approvals in California and elsewhere.
The Trump Administration later halted that process and then reversed an Obama-era decision in September 2018.The federal government nullified a prior plan to place 321-acres in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts.
To avoid these restrictions, some sovereign tribal nations, like the Seminole Tribe of Florida, have taken alternative steps and targeted specific commercial gaming markets. In June 2018, the Seminoles debuted their totally rebuilt and rebranded $500 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on the site of the former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
Connecticut’s casino juggernaut Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment (MGE) continues its successful aggressive approach, becoming a global player in the gaming industry, operating several casino resorts across the U.S. with plans to expand into new markets. Its growing portfolio includes their flagship property Mohegan Sun, Mohegan Sun Pocono, Resorts Atlantic City, ilani, and Paragaon Casino Resort.
Always with an eye on the future, MGE recently added international management to its list of accomplishments, becoming the service provider for Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara, both located in the heart of Niagara Falls’ tourism district. Growth will continue when Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas opens its doors later this year, introducing MGE into the most popular global gaming market. In addition, MGE is developing two different billion-dollar international integrated resorts, Inspire South Korea and Inspire Athens.
Oklahoma tribes, which are the second most successful in the nation, have also moved forward with operational plans that include expansion into Pennsylvania, and Arkansas. And in Pennsylvania, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama purchased the Sands Bethlehem property for $1.3 billion in 2019.
Many tribes hope to continue growing as they explore online and sports betting opportunities now available at many commercial casinos in numerous states. However, they may also face legal challenges. Launching a tribal sports betting operation has inherent complications because of sovereignty and compact language renegotiations.
Two exceptions are Mississippi and New Mexico tribes. They never confronted these obstacles since their existing compacts’ language permitted a quick introduction of sports betting operations.
Gaming across America is extremely popular and an economic engine within dozens of states. This wide- open gaming opportunity has motivated many tribes to open or begin construction on expansion projects that will enhance their value and financial solvency.
We’ll begin our tour of this ever-changing tribal gaming landscape with a summary of some of the most dramatic recent and planned expansions.
CHOCTAW CASINO & RESORT
DURANT, OK • www.ChoctawCasinos.com
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma broke ground last April on a $500 million expansion project at its resort property in Durant, OK. The construction will add 1,000 guest rooms. Increasing the total room count to more than 1,600 will give the Durant hotel the most guest rooms in Oklahoma.
This is the fourth expansion since the original casino, with more than 100,000 square feet, opened in 2006.The tribe again expanded and added the Grand Tower in 2010.A 2015 renovation opened another hotel tower with a spa, The Grand Theater and The District, a family entertainment center.
The latest project will add many new amenities, including greater gaming floor space, pools and a lazy river, parking garage, retail space, entertainment options and dining venues.
The grand opening is scheduled for Spring 2021 and the City of Durant estimates 1,000 jobs will be created from this new facility.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton said, “The expansion will go a long way in meeting the demands of our growing customer base by delivering exciting new enhancements and luxury amenities for all who visit.”
DESERT DIAMOND CASINO – WEST VALLEY
Glendale, AZ • www.ddcaz.com/west-valley
The Tohono O’odham Nation opened its $400 million, 1.2 million-square-foot class III casino – the new Desert Diamond West Valley Casino – in Glendale, AZ on Feb. 19.The new state-of-the-art casino features 75,000 square-feet of gaming space including 1,199 slot machines, 36 poker tables, 48 blackjack tables, live bingo, two bars, a VIP lounge, five restaurants and dining areas, two covered parking garages and a water feature out front.
Restaurants include an authentic Italian venue The Nuovo Giorno Italian Bistro, The Winners sports bar featuring wall-to-wall TVs and a menu hosting flatbreads, salads, nachos and more; the 24-hour Fortune Café Coffee shop; a food court including Asian, Mexican and American food; and the casino’s signature restaurant, Nineteen 86 Steakhouse featuring aged steaks and chops, fresh seafood and raw bar. The opening marks the end of a years-long battle between the Tribe and government officials over the casino’s opening and the types of games it would have. In 2015, an “interim” casino opened in the same area, which closed on Feb. 19 to coincide with the opening of the new casino.
The second phase of construction, which includes a hotel and spa, will begin shortly with hopes that the resort will be built and ready to open in time for the Super Bowl in 2023, which will be hosted a few blocks from the site at State Farm Stadium.
Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment also includes three other gaming resorts in Southern Arizona (Tucson, Sahuarita and Why) and is owned and operated by the Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise, a company of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
HO-CHUNK WISCONSIN DELLS
MADISON, WI • www.ho-chunkgaming.com
In May 2019, the Madison Urban Design Commission approved Ho-Chunk Nation’s expansion plans. The 49-acre site will house an additional 90,000 square feet of gaming space, plus a newly-created Heritage Center that tells the Ho-Chunk story.
The Ho-Chunk Nation’s site is located on trust land in Madison and the tribe owns those additional 49 acres ready for development. Throughout its territory in Wisconsin, the tribe currently operates six gaming facilities.
Other property enhancements include two new parking garages, 115,000 additional square feet of conference and entertainment space and construction of a five-story hotel with 150-200 new guest rooms. A new spa and restaurant will complete the project. The total expansion will be completed in phases and the first is scheduled to begin later this year, at the very earliest.
The Ho-Chunk Nation recognizes the need to continue its growth and reinvest in its property, claims Casey Fitzpatrick, senior marketing director, Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Business. He says. “Our goal has been to create facilities that provide a level of service and elevated quality that is consistent with our Ho-Chunk Gaming brand overall.”
SEMINOLE HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINO HOLLYWOOD
It is impossible to miss the iconic Guitar Hotel that now dominates the Hollywood skyline next to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. This new 450-foot high Guitar Hotel, built with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, opened in October. Designed to replicate a guitar with back-to-back guitar faces and brightly-lit strings, the building offers 638 luxury guestrooms and suites. The $1.5 billion expansion has propelled the integrated resort to a new world-class level. The new complex includes a state-of-the-art Hard Rock Live performance venue for 7,000 spectators, 195,000 square feet of expanded and modernized casino space, a 13.5-acre pool and lagoon experience with overwater cabanas and a 42,000-square-foot luxury spa and fitness center.
Dining and nightlife are key elements of the property. The DAER nightclub and day club complex, more than 24 innovative dining, lounge and entertainment choices, numerous high- end retail shops and 150,000 square feet of meeting space round out the property.
SEMINOLE HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINO TAMPA
Across the state, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa officially opened its $700 million expansion on October 3, 2019. The extensive renovation consists of a new 14-story hotel tower with 562 additional hotel rooms and suites and three luxurious pools. The 26,000-square-foot Rock Spa & Salon is equipped with 13 treatment rooms. These include Rhythm & Motion and Hammam Ritual rooms, two VIP suites, a hair and nail salon, a barbershop and a co-ed aqua lounge.
The 223,900-square-foot casino added 1,000 slots and 41 table games, totaling almost 5,000 slots, 179 tables and a state-of- the-art poker room with 46 poker tables. VIP guests now enjoy a first-class experience on a high floor within the new hotel tower. The private floor features an exclusive gaming parlor, check-in counter and elevators to rock star suites.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa offers 14 di- verse food and beverage outlets, all featuring innovative menus that emphasize fresh, world-class cuisine. New casual dining locations include Constant Grind, a sit-down or grab-and-go hot spot for coffee, gelato and pastries. The upbeat, full-service Pool Bar & Grill provides unique views from the center of the hotel’s three pools. For an upscale meal, the more formal Cipresso is an elegant Italian restaurant with crafted cocktails, wine pairings and a creative menu.
The expansion increases the presence and popularity of the resort property in the Tampa/St.Petersburg corner of Florida. “Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is already one of the largest and most profitable casinos in the United States,” said Seminole Gaming CEO/Chairman of Hard Rock Entertainment Jim Allen.
POTAWATOMI HOTEL & CASINO HOTEL TOWER
MILWAUKEE, WI • www.paysbig.com
The Potawatomi Hotel & Casino opened its new $80 mil- lion, 180,000-square-foot expansion project in August 2019.Adding 119 rooms-59 suites and 60 standard rooms-makes the 500-room hotel the second largest in downtown Milwaukee.
This second tower matches the original 19-floor hotel that opened in 2014. From its December 2017 ground- breaking to completion, construction took more than two years and created 50 new jobs.
Every new guest room offers floor- to-ceiling windows with beautiful views of downtown Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. Other amenities include spacious bathrooms fitted with Kohler fixtures, remote control sheers/blinds and an energy-efficient, state-of-the-art thermostat system. The 19th floor Chairman’s Suite features 1,600 square feet of luxury living space with its own gas fireplace, billiards table and butler’s pantry.
The new tower showcases two versatile meeting and multi-use spaces. A 12,000-square-foot Legacy Ballroom can accommodate up to three events simultaneously and more than 600 guests. The Boardroom, located on the top floor with a view of downtown Milwaukee, provides unique meeting opportunities. Guests will feel pampered while relaxing at the Ember Salon & Spa, the first of its kind in the Menomonee Valley. The Ember’s services include salon, barbershop, nail treatments and singles or couples massage rooms.
CEO/General Manager Rodney Ferguson says, “We’ve been fortunate to work with so many great partners in the community to make this new hotel tower happen. This beautiful addition to our property was possible because of the Forest County Potawatomi’s vision. That leadership, along with our hard-working team members, has played a huge role in the renaissance of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.”
SAN JACINTO, CA • www.soboba.com
Years after Indian gaming became legal in 1988, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians’ tribe opened the Soboba Casino in a tent structure in 1995.The Tribe operated in that facility for 24 years and was then replaced in February 2019 with a beautiful full-fledged casino resort built on a golf course. The new property doubled the number of employees from 710 to more than 1,400.
The new Soboba Casino Resort includes a 200-room hotel, seven dining options, a 15,000-square-foot conference center, a gym and a pool. The 480,000-square-foot casino resort houses a 90,000-square-foot gaming floor. Gamblers will enjoy playing on 2,000 slot machines and 32 table games while also patronizing the casino bars, a sports lounge and a high-roller room.