At night, the glowing hotel-tower lights emanating from the Sky Dancer Hotel & Casino in north central North Dakota are visible from 10 miles away.
The bright beacon, accentuated by unique architectural elements, shines across the wooded hills of the Turtle Mountains and Ox Creek, which traverses through the town of Belcourt. The vision was inspired by the northern lights for which the Sky Dancer facility is named.
“It was spectacular if you were driving up last night,” Richard McCloud, the casino's general manager and an Ojibwe member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told Indian Country Today Media Network on Friday morning after the grand opening of the new hotel and gaming center.
Upon entry, customers walked through an expressive canopy that resembles a traditional pow-wow dancer’s fan with several "feathers" spanning into the grand sky-lit lobby supported by luminescent, feather-inspired columns positioned throughout the casino.
“I was happy to see a new feel—a sense of pride that this is going to give to the community,” McCloud said. “I generally refer to this as the keystone project. …I hope it’s an economic driver.”
The completion of the 120,000-foot, six-story hotel and new casino space marks the halfway point of a more than $28 million renovation project that also includes transforming the former casino into an events/convention center with a potential concert seating capacity of 1,500.
The clientele of the hotel-casino, which is roughly a 15-minute drive from the Canadian border, is generally split between regional residents and visitors from the neighboring country, McCloud said. Currently, 420 people are employed by the hospitality/gaming operation, but jobs will prospectively increase with the expansion.
At the hotel-casino's debut event, McCloud said he overheard someone exclaim, "Oh my god, we finally have a casino; it’s just like Vegas!”
That is appropriate, since it was at a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada about three years ago when Turtle Mountain Band representatives made contact with an architectural team and the project sprouted.
Mike Laverdure, a Turtle Mountain Band member and director of the First American Design Studio for DSGW Architects, already had ideas about what could improve the Sky Dancer Hotel & Casino experience, even before he was contracted to do the work.
“The first thing that we noticed—and me being a tribal member going to the casino—was the organizational flow for their clients. …You never really saw a nice space,” he said. The new 120,000-foot, six-story hotel and massive entryway create powerful dimension.
The project was negotiated and executed with extraordinary speed—about 16 months from signing to completion. As impressive, McCloud said, was the overnight relocation of gaming operations from the old section into the new addition. “Basically we shut down for one day to move the properties. …A special thanks to all my employees!”
When the project is fully realized, the entertainment complex will have added 33,000 square feet of space in various buildings situated around the original two-story, 97-room hotel. The new six-story hotel added 100 rooms. The new gaming center offers 820 slot machines, 10 table games and six poker tables with a 31-seat bar—a focal point in the middle of the casino floor. Customers also have more dining options, ranging from fast food to fine dining, including a steakhouse.
While the scale of the multimillion-dollar renovation immediately makes an impression, for Laverdure, it's the details and cultural connection through traditional motifs that really make the Sky Dancer Hotel & Casino something to marvel at.
Beyond the bright lure, the designs tell stories of the colorful Ojibwe heritage. A narrative of the northern lights is graphically depicted on a 14-foot-by-18-inch-tall wall mural, and the exterior lighting kindles images of the astronomical phenomenon. Other works of art evoke traditional stories, the four directions, birchbark weaving or pow wow regalia, and "eagle feather" motifs are blended into the façade and interior decor.