From Dirt Roads to Fiber Optics: FireKeepers Hits the Jackpot

FireKeepers Casino Hotel recently celebrated its five year anniversary with a month-long celebration highlighting a lot to be proud of.
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The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi issued a press release recently to proudly announce a month-long celebration of the fifth anniversary of the opening of FireKeepers Casino Hotel.

The Band has a lot to be proud of. FireKeepers Casino opened in August 2009, and the hotel and conference center were added in December 2012. The property continued to expand its business model with the launch of the new online gaming app in April 2014, and the complete remodel of Kabaret Lounge in May, while increasing its support of the local community with the inaugural FireKeepers Casino Hotel Championship golf tournament in June. The year also saw tribal and casino leadership honored: Chairman Homer A. Mandoka was named the 2013 Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) Tribal Leader of the Year, and Vice Chair Jamie Stuck, Secretary Dorie Rios, and Senior Vice President & Assistant General Manager Brian D. Decorah were named to multiple “40 under 40” lists.

In short, FireKeepers Casino Hotel is a huge hit, but as with many tribes, the path to success was rife with obstacles and opposition including a fierce legal fight with Citizens Exposing Truth about Casinos (CETAC) – one of the many anti-Indian organizations that spread like poison ivy in Michigan as Indian gaming skyrocketed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For the Nottawaseppi, all this is a story about how persistence helped transform the Band from an unwelcome entrant to the local business scene to an integral member of the local community.

Rios created a presentation called “Persistence to Success” that details the Band’s progress, that was given by FireKeepers Hotel General Manager Kathy George and others at the National Indian Gaming Association’s spring annual meeting. Rios told ICTMN that the Band’s story may help other tribes following the same path. “It is important for tribes like the NHBP who have successfully navigated the complex path of developing enterprises that provide a stream of revenue to share their experience with other Tribal Nations as we work together toward the goal of all tribes achieving self-sufficiency,” Rios said.

The 1,100-plus member Band’s homeland and Pine Creek Reservation, where FireKeepers Casino Hotel is located, are in southwestern Michigan, about midway between Chicago and Detroit. The Nottawaseppi is one of nine Potawatomi bands, most of which were forced from their aboriginal territories to Kansas and Oklahoma following the enactment of Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. “The Cherokee’s Trail of Tears outshines others, but the Potawatomi had a Trail of Tears too,” Rios said.

Unlike the other bands, the Nottawaseppi managed to stay in their homeland and hold on to their cultural traditions. Fast forward to the mid-20th century and only a few dozen people lived on the isolated reservation in inadequate housing mired in mud roads and poverty. In 1979, the Nottawaseppi adopted a constitution and organized its government, “and from 1979 to 1995, all the work was done to get federal recognition,” Rios said. On December 19, 1995, the Nottawaseppi Band of Huron Potawatomi was officially acknowledged as “a tribe of American Indians within the meaning of Federal Law.”

Then the struggle for economic self-sufficiency really began. Rios said. “From 1995 on, we researched management companies and getting land into trust and then we faced opposition and litigation from local groups that didn’t want us to open a casino – church groups and political leaders, things like that. We were 10 years in a litigation battle in order to open a casino,” Rios said, “and during that litigation, which of course we won, we had to deal with the environmental work that needed to be done at the casino site. We hired a company to do that work and a management company to see us through the litigation and the whole long process and it got really ugly.”

One of the most difficult things was attending the public meetings required by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to get community feedback on the proposed casino, she said. They were venues for public venom. Even the seating arrangement highlighted the split between the Band and the public. “All the tribal members sat on one side of the room and the public on the other,” Rios says. Most of the public comments were negative and hurtful.

“They mostly predicted that this economic venture was not going to work out because Indians don’t know what they’re doing. They’re dumb. They’re drunk. Just hearing that in those public forums and then going to different stores and restaurants [and seeing those people] was probably the hardest part for me,” Rios says. “They also said the casino would bring gangs and an increase in crime, we’d be hurting small business owners, taking over the local economy, creating a strain on the environment, polluting the water — those types of arguments. It got pretty ugly.” The BIA also collected written comments in binders, which they turned over to the Band. “They make for really interesting reading now,” Rios says, laughing.

The most memorable and bizarre comments came from a woman who attended multiple meetings: She always predicted that the casino would bring a plague of rats and prostitutes. “Her comments stuck out among the other comments and what she always said was that there was going to be a bunch of rats because we were going to have big garbage cans because of all the trash! Yes, there was going to be an influx of rats and I’m thinking, ‘Really? Rats?’” Rios laughed again. “We’re not focusing on the increased work for local subcontractors or the jobs for local labor, no, we’re focusing on the rats!”

Things quieted down when the casino opened – neither rats nor prostitutes materialized as predicted – and by that time one of the band’s strategies for success – building relationships – was paying off. “I think we were successful because during the whole process we were building relationships with the local governments. And I know typically around Indian country those relationships don’t run smoothly, but I think that’s what made us a success – that we had already established relationships. It wasn’t just ‘Hey, we’re building a casino and now we want to build a relationship.’”

As housing director for 12 years before joining the council in 1999, Rios negotiated agreements for police and fire services and worked cooperatively with all levels of local government. And many tribal members and local government officials knew each other because they grew up together and graduated from the same high school. “So once the casino opened, it was smooth sailing – we had our relationships and our cooperative agreements in place, we set up our profit sharing according to our compact and moved ahead,” Rios says.

FireKeepers Hotel General Manager Kathy George offered another reason for the tribe’s success: keeping faith with the tribe’s cultural values and traditions. “From my portion of the presentation the questions revolved around the service culture, recruiting and retention. I was able to speak about the Seven Grandfather Teachings” – bravery, honesty, humility, love, respect, wisdom and truth – “being the basis and weaved throughout our training programs and service culture and that is why it is successful,” George told ICTMN. “These basics have blossomed into a great training and development program for team members to learn and grow and progress through careers at FireKeepers through our career track programs and transfer process.”

Conditions on the reservation have improved immeasurably because of the casino’s success. “We always say it’s been rags to riches, because it’s been less than 10 years since the Pine Creek Reservation still had a dirt road and it was isolated and we still had shacks and issues with running water and inadequate electric service and an elder still chopping wood for heat,’ Rios said. “Now you come out on the rez and we have beautiful homes. We have fiber optics, new sewer and water systems, a health clinic, a community center – in less than 10 years! It’s just amazing. I’ve been through this whole process and I still can’t believe it.”

It was persistence that moved the Band to success, Rios said, especially at the beginning when the tribe established a stable tribal government, developed a constitution and gained federal acknowledgment despite opponents “who just don’t think Indian people have it in them to lead and to be successful.”

And persistence and consistency continue to be critical to FireKeepers’ success, George said. “Any problem can be solved with teamwork, communication and persistence,” George said. “Whether we are working to exceed our market share with our competition, provide the best service experience possible, or hire and retain the best employee base, the team is committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure we are the employer and casino of choice in Michigan. We work together and strive to differentiate ourselves so our goals can be achieved.”

George sees a bright future for FireKeepers Casino Hotel and the Nottawaseppi. The casino has provided the means to build the tribal nation, provide for its members and for the community as a whole, she said. In addition to providing jobs and economic development in the area, the casino has paid $58 million to the State of Michigan and donated $21.9 million to the FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board since 2009, both as part of the Band’s compact. In August, 2014, FireKeepers Casino Hotel surpassed $250 million in cumulative paid labor costs that include: total wages, health insurance, 401(k), and incentives to the 1,700 full and part time team members since opening. The tribe’s commitment to local spending has resulted in awarding contracts in excess of $93.1 million across the state since opening.

“In addition, the work that the tribe is doing with economic development to diversify into different business platforms is a great spring board into the future and am looking forward to assisting and being a part of the future,” George said.

But there are still tribes out there that are still struggling with the same challenges the Nottawaseppi Band faced not too long ago. Band members are ready to help them, Rios said. “We speak to groups all the time that are either getting federal recognition or just going through the same battle that we did,” Rios said. Whether the opponents to Indian casinos and tribal sovereignty are driven by racism, ignorance, a lack of understanding or any combination thereof, Rios said her advice is the same: “Our message is just stay persistent. It’s just natural for Native people to be patient. Patience and persistence will pay off.”

As for the opponents who fought the Band so hard for so long, “We proved them wrong,” Rios said.