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Grand opening of Wind River Casino marks historic milestone

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RIVERTON, Wyo. - The Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming's Wind River Reservation celebrated the grand opening of its flagship casino June 5 with traditional song and dance, capping a 20-year effort to stimulate a moribund reservation economy.

A goal of tribal leaders first set in motion in 1988 with the opening of a modest bingo hall in a failed trucking company distribution center, the elegant, new 45,000-square-foot casino has created 450 new jobs and a new revenue stream for the tribe's more than 8,000 enrolled members, not to mention a boost in tribal morale. The casino is now the tribe's largest employer.

The new facility is resplendent with lush carpeting and 25-foot-high ceilings. Interior features include 25 flat-screen televisions throughout the casino, rich earth-tone colors, special lighting and a spectacular sound system combined with the music of more than 720 gaming machines and eight gaming tables.

The new casino also provides the tribe with an opportunity to showcase its culture. The casino offers summer-long performances of The Northern Arapaho Experience through traditional singing, dancing and storytelling in an outdoor theater carpeted with native grasses and accented with multiple tipis and other tribal symbols.

''Sacred and social gambling has been practiced by our people for centuries,'' said Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Al Addison at the grand opening ceremony. ''The establishment of this casino is not only an acknowledgment of our rich cultural tradition, but it represents our best economic development efforts to provide new careers in the tourism and hospitality industries for our people.''

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Sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Big and Little Wind rivers south of Riverton on a major travel route into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the new casino marks the tribe's formal entrance into the region's lucrative tourism economy. It also contributes to the trend throughout Indian country that tribal gaming is the fastest-growing source of economic activities on reservations in the United States.

The now fully operational casino quietly opened April 29 in what General Manager Jim Conrad called a ''soft opening'' with only a quarter of the more than 700 Las Vegas-style gaming machines in operation. Since that quiet beginning, the casino is now fully operational with all gaming machines and tables in use, and all other amenities available.

The casino offers its patrons several dining options, including fine dining at the elegant Red Willow Restaurant featuring specialty cuts of organic beef produced by the tribe's own ranching operation and more casual fare at the sidewalk-style Cee nokuu Cafe and hot and cold beverages at an espresso station.

Eighty of the 720 gaming machines are housed in a separate nonsmoking section of the casino, which also features a 4,500-square-foot meeting and entertainment space and a gift shop. Outside the casino's main doors, an 850-space lighted and paved parking lot serves patrons.

The new Wind River casino features 230 more gaming machines and four more table games than existed at the tribe's original casino location, one-half mile to the north. The new Wind River Casino is nearly double the size of its predecessor. A huge electronic sign on Highway 789 adjacent to the new facility serves as a beacon to the new casino.

With Wind River Casino's opening, the Northern Arapaho Tribe will own and operate three casinos on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The tribe also operates the 20,000-square-foot 789 Smoke Shop and Casino south of Riverton, which features 140 gaming machines, a tobacco store, a convenience store, cafe and a car/truck stop, and the nearly 10,000-square-foot Little Wind Casino at Ethete. The Little Wind Casino features two separate gaming areas with 140 Las Vegas-style gaming machines, a convenience store, deli and gasoline station.