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Casino is center of a decade of development

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ROCHESTER, Wash. (AP) - For Kelso resident Jim Guenthner, the trip north to
the Lucky Eagle Casino is a weekly event.

"This casino is a very nice casino, and it's a very well-run poker room,"
he said while taking a break from the tables at the facility between
Rochester and Oakville on the Chehalis Indian Reservation.

Guenthner, who plays only poker at the casino, said he likes the Lucky
Eagle because of the free coffee and the clean atmosphere. He considers
himself a break-even player, and he said he usually spends between $200 and
$500 per trip to the Rochester-area casino.

It's gamblers like Guenthner who have brought the most business to the
Lucky Eagle since it opened a decade ago. They come from the Twin Cities,
southern Washington and Olympia, plugging money into electronic gaming
machines and betting on a blackjack or a straight flush.

The Lucky Eagle just marked the 10-year anniversary of its opening. The
casino held a pow wow to celebrate.

But for the past 10 years, the Lucky Eagle has been about more than just
games for the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, which owns the casino.

It's the foundation of the tribe's growing economy.

The casino is the reason the tribe has been able to expand its business
ventures to include a gasoline station, a construction company and a hotel.
Profits from the Lucky Eagle have also allowed the tribe to develop a plan
to build a new medical clinic and police station.

Ask Chehalis Tribal Chairman David Burnett about economic development on
the reservation, and he won't start by talking about the Lucky Eagle
Casino. No, he'll tell you about the tribe's new baseball fields, the
proposed new public safety building and the plans to build a new medical
center.

It's not that Burnett doesn't recognize the casino's role in making those
projects possible; he does. But Burnett hopes, in the long run, the
Chehalis tribe will be known for something more than the Lucky Eagle
Casino.

"I don't want to be known as a gaming tribe," he said. "I would like to
have enough economic development that we're known as an economic
development tribe. My desire is to see that we have enough other business
that the casino is not the sole source of revenue."

When the Lucky Eagle opened in 1995, the tribe had one source of revenue -
a small general store located next to the tribal center. The casino didn't
start making a profit until 1999, and now devotes 85 percent of its profits
to economic development, Burnett said.

The remaining 15 percent is doled out in payments to the roughly 700 tribe
members, he said. About 700 people work at the casino, and about 300 of
those employees are members of the tribe, Lucky Eagle General Manager John
Setterstrom said.

In addition to the gas station on Highway 12, the tribe wholly owns one
construction company, Chehalis Tribal Construction, and partially owns
another, called Saxas.

Saxas, which in the Chehalis language means "to build," is building the
tribe's crown jewel: the 69-room hotel across the street from the casino.
It is slated to open at the beginning of July.

The importance of diversification in the Chehalis' economic development
planning led tribal leaders to pursue a business relationship with
Wisconsin-based Great Wolf Resorts and forge an agreement that will create
a multimillion-dollar, 300-plus room hotel - featuring an indoor water park
and Native-themed destination resort - that will employ more than 400. The
project will be located near Interstate 5 and the Chehalis' reservation in
Centralia, Wash.

The development is exciting for the tribe, but Burnett said he is happier
with what the tribe can do with that economic freedom. With worries of
financial survival secondary, the tribe may focus on celebrating its
heritage, such as holding classes in traditional basketmaking and the
Chehalis language.

Plus, Chehalis tribe members may go to a public college, and the tribe will
pay for tuition and books.

When that program began in 1999, fewer than 10 students took advantage of
it, Burnett said. This year, the number has grown to 40 - both teenagers
and adults, Burnett said.

"That, I think, is as satisfying as anything to know our tribal members'
kids in high school - that if they go to college - the tribe is going to
assist them," Burnett said.

Seven years later, with the Las Vegas-based Bally's Casino as a partner,
the Lucky Eagle Casino opened its doors, boasting blackjack, craps and
roulette tables, along with a small deli and a restaurant.

In 1999, after federal case law paved the way for electronic scratch games,
the Lucky Eagle expanded, bringing in the events center, a buffet and a
cabaret restaurant.

Now, the 85,000-square-foot facility offers 558 (of the 625 allotted)
electronic machines and 20 table games. During the weekends, between 3,000
and 4,000 people come through the doors of a casino that at the time of the
expansion was worth about $30 million, according to Setterstrom.

And, Setterstrom added, the Lucky Eagle is sending out buses to bring in
people from as far away as Seattle and Yakima.

"People are traveling past some of the larger urban casinos to come to our
casino," he said.

The Chehalis tribe is fortunate for what the Lucky Eagle Casino has brought
to it, Chairman Burnett said, but he doesn't want to count on that cash cow
forever.

Last year's statewide effort to pass Initiative 892 - which would have
allowed non-tribal businesses to operate electronic scratch machines,
shaving off the tribe's corner on the state gaming market - failed, but
Burnett sees a time when a similar measure could pass.

"I try to operate under the idea that [gaming revenue] is not always going
to be here," he said.

Burnett is happy for what the casino has brought the tribe for the last 10
years. But economic development for the future, he said, may lie elsewhere.

"In my opinion, those who are looking to diversify are being wise, but you
just never know," he said.