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Coeur d'Alene Casino now a destination resort

WORLEY, Idaho - It began in 1993 as a bingo hall. Ten years later it has passed through several growing phases into a major casino with a beautiful hotel added and now ranks as a full-fledged destination resort. A number of major improvements have recently been made or are under way with completion dates set for later this fall or next spring. The Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel has made believers of many who said it couldn't be done.

Many people have worked to make this complex a success but few would question that the primary mover and visionary was David Matheson. He's a former Coeur d'Alene tribal chairman and holds an MBA degree from the University of Washington. He credits his schooling with helping manage and motivate people but says "they don't have a course in how to make it work in a tribal environment." That's where his earlier work in tribal government helps. He firmly believes that tribal politics and running a business like the casino need to be kept separate. He isn't running for election so all decisions can be based on business. "Here you'll probably see some of the best customer service that you'll find anywhere in the country and it's because we try to keep the 'cancer' of politics away and run it like a business."

The complex is located alongside Highway 95 a few miles north of the small community of Worley, Idaho. The nearest towns of any size are Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Spokane, Wash., each 30 to 40 minutes away. Matheson commented "it wasn't easy. We aren't in the middle of a town. We have to do things better and bigger with more payoff and better food and better customer service and it made us sharpen our pencils and try to do everything the best we possibly could." Spokane is the primary market but it draws from much farther. Many tour busses come down from Canada, Montana or western Washington and a normal day will see five to 10 such buses with special events bringing in many more.

Whether gaming is good for tribes or not is frequently discussed. Matheson has no doubts in relation to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. He said "we think gaming has been a wonderful blessing to our people. Our opponents talk about the evils of gaming but the evil to us was poverty. Gaming helped us kill that poverty and bring the blessing of hope and opportunity to the hearts, minds, and souls of our people again."

There are 1,834 enrolled members in the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The Casino/Motel complex presently employs about 700 people, the majority of whom are tribal members. The expansions will increase that number to roughly 1,000. As Matheson said, "just about everybody who wants a job on this reservation can go out and get one and now, instead of a culture of welfare, we have a culture of hope - and it's a beautiful thing to behold."

The tribe has a revenue distribution plan with 25 percent of the revenue going for the reacquisition of lands that were lost over time. Another 25 percent goes to tribal members and this amounts to each person receiving about $1,200 twice a year, once before school starts so youngsters can get new clothes and the second before Christmas to add joy to that season. Other funds go to economic development to diversify other than gaming, and to social programs like housing, meals, etc. Another 5 percent goes to education with a significant amount to the tribal school at Desmet, Idaho. Other schools in neighboring communities also benefit. Last year $600,000 was distributed to schools in nearby communities and to North Idaho College to aid in their Native Studies program. This portion has been as much as $1 million a year.

David Matheson is very aware of his Coeur d'Alene tribal ancestry. In discussing the successes of this business, he stated "what we have, maybe, is an answer to prayer by older leaders of generations past who lived real harsh poverty. I'm just fortunate to be a part, with all the other team members, of the answers to those prayers. I'm glad we were all picked to do something of significance here with, and for, our people."

About the resort

The hotel currently has 96 rooms and contains a swimming pool, a day care room to take care of youngsters of employees, a game room, and a workout room. Native materials are used throughout with an American Indian decor. The conference center can accommodate meetings and banquets for up to 1,000 people. The casino has 1,500 gaming machines with off-track betting from 18 tracks also available. Its restaurant will seat 150 people. They regularly host professional boxing matches, Toughman contests and concerts featuring well-known performers.

This sounds impressive in itself but plans for the immediate future are incredible. An addition to the hotel, scheduled to open in December, is nearly finished and will add 100 more rooms. Also opening in December, seating in the restaurant will double to 300 and a second restaurant is being added. A rotunda is being added to the front of the casino and will add another 700 gaming machines. A 7,000-seat amphitheater is scheduled for opening in spring 2004. It will be covered but without side walls and used for a variety of events like rodeos, pow wows, and trade shows. A new concert arena is coming next spring that will seat 3,000. An R.V. camp is on the drawing board and a site will soon be selected but there is no estimate yet on when it will open.

The newest addition is the Circling Raven Golf Club, which opened on Aug. 1, 2003. Many top golf course architects were considered but Gene Bates was finally selected as his design featured the natural landscape on 400 acres. No trees were needed to be planted as the 18 holes are interwoven through the forested meadows and around sensitive wetlands of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. A lot of dirt was moved and many bunkers constructed to create a 7,189 yard, par 72 course that features five sets of tees to challenge golfers of all abilities. Gene Bates was quoted in the Spokane newspaper saying "The Coeur d'Alene Tribe put a huge effort into making sure we had all the facilities available to us to do what we do best. They gave us not only the financial support to do the job, but the moral support, as well. And what better combination can you have than that?"

The quality is immediately obvious. The grass on the fairways and around the clubhouse is extremely dense and a deep green color that could rival many expensive carpets. The fairways are largely out of sight of each other, winding through the trees. No development will be allowed adjacent to the course so the experience is one of being alone in the woods. The pathways and tee markers are beautifully crafted. The clubhouse is made of wood and stone, and contains a gift shop and the Twisted Earth Bar and Grill offering outside dining on the deck. The cost for a round of golf is $70 but includes the use of a golf cart with a sophisticated global positioning satellite system that gives the exact distance from the ball to the front of the green, rear of the green, and to the pin. It also includes unlimited range balls and a practice range across the highway with an under-highway passageway to reach it. Tribal members are provided with reduced rates.

Circling Raven was perhaps the most powerful, prophetic and spiritual chief of the Coeur d'Alene people. His son was Twisted Earth. The golf course and clubhouse were named in their honor.