Glitzy, smoke-free Arizona casino reflects reach for more gamers

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By Cathryn Creno -- The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona's newest casino not only has the state's largest collection of slot machines awaiting those spare quarters, nickels and pennies.

It also reflects a culmination of the movement away from the smoke-filled, bare-bones buildings and tents that have housed slot machines, bingo and card tables since gaming began in Arizona more than a decade ago.

Waterfalls cascade down pebble-covered walls at Desert Diamond Casino and Hotel on Nogales Highway in Tucson, which opened its $125 million facility in October.

A smoke-free poker room, slot machine room, buffet and steakhouse await gamers who dislike cigarette smoke.

Metropolitan Phoenix residents who want to make a weekend out of a visit to Desert Diamond, which is on Tohono O'odham Nation land about a mile from Tucson International Airport, can opt to stay in rooms with ritzy features such as whirlpools and flat-screen televisions in the bathrooms.

And, although Gila River Casinos outside metro Phoenix have more total slot machines, Desert Diamond has the most slots at any one facility: 1,089.

''I love this place - it is beautiful, beautiful,'' Tucson resident Norma Zavalza said as she played Wheel of Fortune, Desert Diamond's most popular slot machine. She showed off bills totaling $100 she said she had won playing that morning.

Zavalza said she went to Desert Diamond frequently before last October, when the casino was still inside a tentlike sprung structure that originally opened as a bingo hall in 1984.

But the ambience of the new $125 million casino/hotel complex has turned her into a regular. ''I'm here every day for lunch,'' she said.

Desert Diamond is not alone in making upgrades to its property.

In the Phoenix metro area, the Gila River Indian Community is in the process of doubling the size of its Lone Butte Casino outside Chandler. And the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has broken ground on a casino-hotel outside Scottsdale.

Octaviana Trujillo, professor and chairman of Northern Arizona University's applied indigenous studies department, said the progress at Desert Diamond is a good example of how casinos can be economic development tools.

''I have never seen Class III gaming as a panacea, but it is good as a tool for leveraging,'' said Trujillo, also a former vice chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which has two casinos outside Tucson. She said many Arizona tribes have gone on to create other businesses with casino profits.

''Before, no one in the business community wanted to partner with us.''

In fiscal 2007, Arizona's 22 casinos took in collective revenue of $1.94 billion, according to the Arizona Department of Gaming.

Most of the state's 15 gaming tribes use a substantial part of their earnings to start additional businesses and improve life in other ways for members. Some also are putting money back into their casinos in hopes of generating even more business.

Under a compact between Arizona and the tribes, casinos are not required to disclose revenues.

But the Tohono O'odham Nation calculates Desert Diamond Casino and Hotel and two other casinos it owns inject $25 million annually into southern Arizona's economy.

Casino profits also have given the Tohono O'odhams the financial traction to develop youth centers and a skilled nursing facility, and improve law enforcement and fire protection on their 2.8-million-acre reservation.

Wendell Long, CEO of the Pascua Yaqui's Casino del Sol, said he admires his competitor's new casino/hotel and hopes it will help generate more overall interest in gaming in southern Arizona.

''It's a beautiful facility,'' Long said, ''and in a great location.''

Scott Sirois, CEO of Tohono O'odham Gaming Enterprise, said while the new Desert Diamond welcomes players from everywhere, the goal is to increase its number of local gamers who are regulars.

But Sirois said that Desert Diamond's typical customer lives in or near Tucson and has a median age of 60.

Much of the data about players comes from information gathered through the casino's 100,000-member players club, which tracks games members play and how much they spend. The casino then rewards the most active players with free gaming, valet parking, meal discounts and other perks.

''We database-mine with the best of them,'' Sirois said. ''We do our best to make our best customers very happy.''

Not that Desert Diamond is turning business from outside Tucson away. Sirois said a federal border-fence planning task force recently stayed at the 148-room hotel and made use of its conference center, which has a capacity of 450.

One thing Desert Diamond may create is a bigger market of nonsmoking gamers for its 1,089 slots, 270-seat bingo hall, 29 poker tables and 23 blackjack tables.

Arizona casinos are not bound by the state's anti-smoking law. Most permit cigarettes in restaurants and gaming rooms. But Desert Diamond bans smoking in restaurants, in part of its bingo hall and in separate poker and slot machine rooms.

The casino also has a building-wide air-filtering system that Sirois says brings in fresh air and removes stale air every 10 minutes.

''It certainly has not cost us any business,'' Sirois said.

Desert Diamond also has an open, contemporary-Southwestern decor that makes use of materials such as stamped concrete to make players feel like they are in a luxurious desert setting.

''One of the most important elements in gaming is the vibe,'' Sirois said.

The concrete floors resemble shifting desert sand. Blackjack tables are placed in a serpentine pattern near the casino's Tree Bar, which features a laminated metal replica of a mesquite tree. And the casino's Monsoon nightclub has hanging lights that resemble funnel clouds.

''It all gets rid of the typical boxy feeling you have in many casinos,'' Sirois said.

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