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Expansion creates new Prairie Wind Casino.

By David Melmer -- Today staff

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Prairie Wind Casino sits on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the middle of the prairie with no communities within sight - just a few scattered houses, a view of the Badlands, some range cattle and wild game. Most of the time, however, there is a lot of wind - hence the name.

It is not one of those megacasinos where the lights flash and traffic flows 24 hours a day, nor is it where the big entertainment tours stop, but it has an atmosphere that attracts people from the local area, mostly ranchers and tribal members. In season, tourists are routed to the casino.

Prairie Wind Casino has a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere and is equipped with a buffet restaurant - one of the few nearby. Half of the casino is smoke-free.

An attached 78-room hotel with meeting rooms is the only facility on Pine Ridge with such amenities. One other motel is located in the center of the reservation, but is much smaller.

The Prairie Wind Casino got its start in 1994 with three mobile units that housed 75 slot machines. Next came a tent-like structure that was cramped with 250 slot machines and a small restaurant; offices had to be housed in the original mobile units.

After nearly two years of construction fraught with delays and controversy, the move to the new casino took place in March of this year and the hotel opened in June. Construction of the new casino cost $12 million and the hotel added an additional $4.8 million. Most of the funds came from a loan through the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota.

The new Prairie Wind Casino is more than twice the size of the old one and the restaurant can accommodate large crowds that come with bus tours for dinner and luncheon meetings.

Prairie Wind is located on a U.S. highway that travels through Pine Ridge but it is not near a major intersection. Visitors have to know where the casino is located and have to commit to travel to the casino or hotel. Some bus tours come through and stop for lunch or dinner, and some stay overnight in the hotel, said Mike Graham, general manager of Prairie Wind.

''This is a large improvement for the staff and customers. The old place was too crowded,'' Graham said. ''There is more room to get around and more parking.''

The new casino was built to hold 500 slot machines, but at present the casino still has only 250. That's the maximum number the state will allow any tribal casino under the current compacts. None of the tribally owned casinos in South Dakota have been given any indication that additional gaming devices will be increased.

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Graham said the casino is in negotiations with three Class II gaming device suppliers to bring in 25 machines each on an experimental basis to determine if the guests approve of the Class II devices and if more customers are attracted to the casino. It has not been determined when the additional devices will be installed.

With the unused space, the gaming floor at Prairie Wind is spacious and comfortable for guests. The newness of the facility is immediately attractive to the eye, and the restaurant affords a leisure dining experience.

To accommodate the larger facility, an additional 40 employees were added to the 240 that were already employed. Graham said they are still getting settled in to discover how many employees it will take to operate the facilities.

The main focus of the new complex is the casino, Graham said, and the hotel and food complement the casino, at this time.

From the carpeting to the decorative wall treatments, the casino exudes a welcoming atmosphere; and many people are able to carry on conversations while sipping a cup of coffee or a soft drink in comfortable chairs situated on the edge of the gaming floor. (Prairie Wind Casino is alcohol-free.)

The new facility also has backroom space sufficient for offices and training areas. Graham said more emphasis will be placed on training and on customer service.

Oglala Lakota College will bring instructors to the casino to conduct hospitality classes for the employees, who will also receive college credit.

Customers who frequent Prairie Wind are from a 100-mile radius that takes in parts of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. Marketing efforts for the casino are focused on those areas.

A few guests who traveled from Chadron, Neb., about an hour's drive away, to the casino on a recent afternoon said they appreciate the new casino because it is attractive and comfortable, and the food was also a big attraction.

The guests also said the staff was friendly and very accommodating.

The casino revenue is small compared to many other casinos, and any profit margin reflects the lower revenue income. Any extra revenue is used mostly to supplement tribal program funding, for health, education and environmental programs. The major benefit from the casino is that more people are employed in one of the areas of the country that is classified as one of the poorest counties in the nation. Those jobs at Prairie Wind make it one of the top employers on the reservation, in company with the tribal government, the IHS and OLC.

Expansion is also on the planning table for Prairie Wind. Graham said the old casino will be converted soon as a bingo venue that will also have a small lunch area component. A veterans group has planned to construct a veterans memorial and a building on the site, and the old mobile units that were the first home of the casino will be given to districts on the reservation.