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Fort Sill Apache Casino celebrates a decade

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LAWTON, Okla. – The Fort Sill Apache Casino has celebrated 10 years in Lawton, Okla., and now plans to build a hotel to accompany its two-story gaming facility.

Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser said groundbreaking is anticipated for the first quarter of 2011. The proposed 135-room hotel would offer a 24-hour restaurant.

“We’re just now closing in on financing,” Houser said in late October. Plans have been scaled back from original designs that had included office space and a steak house. Those designs had been put forth just before the stock market crash of October 2008, and were sidelined by a “difficult financial market,” Houser said.

“That gave us the opportunity to scale it back and make it the right size,” said Houser, who added that further additions could be made on the property in the future as the economy allows.

“In 2008, we invested $12 million in a project to renovate and expand the casino and as a result doubled our revenue,” Houser said.

The casino, with two floors of slots and table games spread across 23,500 square feet, is billed as “Southwest Oklahoma’s Friendliest Casino.” It lives up to that name with a welcoming Loft Lounge overlooking the gaming floor, and promotions such as a $100,000 top prize in the $250,000 Blackjack Tournament Nov. 29 – Dec. 16.

The 10th anniversary occurred in 2009 but was celebrated in festive style this past September. Country/crossover star Lynn Anderson sang her Grammy-winning “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” to a full house, and the audience was treated to many more hits of Billboard magazines “Artist of the Decade” 1970 – 1980. Anderson didn’t mind sharing the stage briefly with the casino’s mascot, the larger-than-life prairie dog named “Apache Pete.”

As the casino enters its second decade, Houser summarized what the facility’s revenue has meant for the tribe of some 670 members, roughly 300 of whom live in Oklahoma.

“Tribal members benefit directly from our casino through our monthly revenue allocation payments, which have ranged from $300 to $1,300 per month since the plan’s inception in 2003. The casino provides the tribal government the financial resources that enable us to address our goals of improving the lives of tribal members through education and economic development, restoring tribal culture, addressing the tribe’s 27-year imprisonment by the United States, and returning the tribe to its homelands in New Mexico and Arizona.

“Our higher education program provides financial assistance to about 30 members who are attending college or graduate school. Our cultural program preserves and promotes the culture of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs bands of Apache through instructional programs, recordings and publications.”

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe is comprised of the descendants of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who lived in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico until they were removed from their homelands and held as prisoners of war by the United States from 1886 – 1914. Fort Sill Apache tribal members are descended from 81 former prisoners of war who received allotments in Oklahoma after their release.

The tribe’s territory includes trust lands in southwestern Oklahoma, southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The tribal headquarters is located two miles north of Apache, Okla.

Should the goal of restoring the tribe to its homelands be realized, the Fort Sill Apache Casino in Oklahoma would still remain, Houser said in answer to a reporter’s question. “The casino is a vital part of the local economy.”

The tribe operates a restaurant and smoke shop on 30 acres of trust land along I-10 between Deming and Las Cruces, N.M., and is currently in the process of appealing a federal restriction on operating gaming there.

The Fort Sill Apache tribal heritage is rich with legendary leaders such as Geronimo, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, the latter of whom was the great-great grandfather of the current tribal chairman. Houser, who holds an MBA from Duke University, is also the nephew of the late renown sculptor, painter and teacher Allan Houser, whose work is found at the United Nations building in New York City, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.