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Arizona’s Indian Gaming Phenomenon

“It’s the tribal in tribal gaming that makes the difference and this has been a banner year for Indian gaming in Arizona.”
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“It’s the tribal in tribal gaming that makes the difference and this has been a banner year for Indian gaming in Arizona,” said Valerie Spicer, Executive Director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association.

Kicking off the annual AIGA EXPO at the Fort McDowell We-ko-pa Resort in Scottsdale last week, Spicer told nearly 500 attendees, “This phenomenon of Indian gaming blows my mind. As of the third quarter of this year, we reached over a billion dollars in contributions made to the State of Arizona, a clearly significant event because sharing gaming revenues sets our industry apart. Our culture teaches us to give back and help others, providing not only for our own people, but for everyone who calls our state home.”

In addition to its impact through revenue sharing, tribal gaming in Arizona makes a major economic impact with more than 15,000 people directly employed in the industry. When indirect jobs are added, the number exceeds 22,000. “If you look at gaming as a sub-category of industry,” said Spicer, “tribal gaming facilities are part of the Top 5 employers in the state and the economic contributions made to Indian communities from gaming mean more development, expansion, and diversification.” Arizona is home to 22 tribes and AIGA represents 18 of them or more than 90 percent of Indian people living on reservations throughout the state.

From the convention kick-off Desert Classic Golf Tournament (a new car for a hole-in-one) to the “Grill Off” challenge between 8 Native American resort/casino chefs to a closing luncheon featuring former NFL quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer (and a pair of tickets to the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix), the agenda was jam-packed with positives about where Indian gaming has been, is now, and is going in the future.

“Nothing happens in a vacuum and we’re all in this together,” said Spicer in introducing Ernest Stevens Jr., Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, who spoke about unity. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t stood up for what we believed in. We need to be large and in charge through diplomacy, hard work, and respect for one another.” Stevens also noted that 2013 tribal gaming represented more than $32 billion in direct and ancillary revenues.

Enthusiasm of past successes was a big part of the convention schedule as was the aspect of education that would bring more gains in the future. In a prototype project, San Diego State University’s Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming took its classroom curriculum on the road for a training program in tribal casino management. “This is a new frontier for us, the first time we’ve presented directly to the tribe’s themselves,” said Dr. Katherine Spilde, the Institute’s chairwoman.

Attendees who did not seek certification had a variety of other options in training sessions ranging from how tribal gaming made a difference to Indian communities to the latest issues on gaming regulations, digital technology, and a post-election playbook of how recent elections might impact the industry.

To that subject, panelist Glenn Hamer, President/CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry said: “Gaming is a major part of Arizona’s overall tourism industry – a textbook scenario on economic input – and the GOP majority supports job creation, so I believe they will view Indian gaming in a positive way.”

On the issue of Bridging the Digital Divide and the impact of new technology on traditional brick and mortar casinos, Gary Murrey, Chief Operations Officer of the San Carlos Apache Gold Casino, welcomed the advances, calling it staying ahead of the curve. “New technology adds to the glitz and glamour of the social experience – the bright lights and excitement. It’s a 360 degree immersion experience if you build your casino correctly.”

Building it correctly and running it correctly were both stressed. “Regulation is a necessary part of the economic development of Indian gaming. It provides credibility as well as efficiency on the operational side,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, Acting Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. “There’s a direct connection between regulated gaming and economic development, self-preservation, and self-determination, and we have 5,400 tribal regulators on the ground to make sure items get addressed before any regulatory compliance enforcement is needed.”

“From a regulatory standpoint, Indian gaming in Arizona runs smoothly,” according to Dan Bergin, state gaming department director. “We maintain cordial relationships with the tribes. They respect our regulations, we respect their sovereignty and on that basis of cooperation, we’re viewed nationally as a model relationship. Tribes are interested in compliance issues too because of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the industry and protecting it from corrupt influences like criminal elements and money laundering.”

One cloud that may be gathering on the horizon is the issue of gaming compact renewals. “Contracts start expiring in 2023,” said Bergin, “We have a three year negotiation period, so I think at some point we’re going to have to start talking about re-negotiation and extensions and things of that sort. It took us years to negotiate the last pact and I think we should see the signs of discussion beginning soon. One can never start too early to develop a game plan.”

That issue took center stage at a Tribal Leadership Forum on Gaming Decisions Made for Generations to Come – Has it Turned Out as You Anticipated?

“Our concern isn’t with state negotiations, but with inter-tribal discussions,” said Diane Enos, President, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. “Compact negotiation is a several year process and we’re leery at the moment. Everyone needs to put down their bows and arrows, trust each other, and move forward in good faith.”

Added Thomas Beauty, Chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation: “I wish we had negotiated the 2002 compact to allow adjustments to be made rather than something that ends and requires re-negotiation because we’re always the ones being strong-armed. Arizona is in a fiscal deficit and administrators are going to be looking under rocks for new finances. We already return 12 percent. Do we have more to give? I don’t believe so. It’s going to be a struggle to re-negotiate because we don’t want to get the short end of the stick this time.”