Grand Traverse Band goes green.

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Revamped Turtle Creek Casino is eco-friendly

By David Capriccioso -- Today correspondent

WILLIAMSBURG, Mich. - Go green!

That might be the new motto for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

The northern Michigan tribe, which opened the doors to its rebuilt Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel in June, has received much fanfare for creating an eco-friendly gaming destination.

The project didn't come without apprehension, though.

As GTB officials excitedly toured tribal casinos in their state and visited gaming properties in Las Vegas during planning stages of their new Turtle Creek property, they were nervous about the direction architect Stephen Knowles envisioned.

Knowles, part of Minneapolis-based firm Walsh Bishop, proposed an ambitious green project with a special focus on bringing something different to a region already rich in tribal casinos.

''It's a very bold design,'' said Ron Olson, CEO of the GTB's Economic Development Corp. and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. ''During construction, there was a time that we second-guessed ourselves.''

But as the project neared completion, these fears were quickly squashed when tribal officials realized the gem they had on their hands, even though overall costs had increased to $115 million or about $35 million more than the preliminary financing had called for.

The 360,000-square-foot structure boasts a skylight about the size of a football field, which helps bring in natural light to visitors as they play one of the casino's 1,300 slot machines or participate in one of several table games like blackjack, poker and craps.

The skylight also helps decrease lighting costs by about 50 percent, according to Turtle Creek records.

Turtle Creek's impressive LED lighting system features a rainbow of colors - including green - to reflect the mood and demographics of the casino at any given point of the day. The LED lighting was more costly than traditional lighting, but casino officials believe the extra expenses were necessary to save money later on.

As an extra benefit, the lighting can also be coordinated to music.

Turtle Creek also holds a modern air handling system which is designed to push air and smoke from cigarette-smoking guests up to the casino's high ceilings more quickly to help minimize concerns from potential visitors who often avoid casinos because of their reputation as smoky environments. The system's vents purify the air and disperse it outside.

''It's a much healthier environment for customers and employees,'' Olson explained.

A 2,400-square-foot green roof with ferns and lilies growing on top of part of the structure, and Turtle Creek has its own sewage treatment plant that purifies 90,000 gallons each day. Turtle Creek officials hope that these developments will help the casino attain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The property also contains a 137-room hotel, two waterfalls, a gathering area, several dining and beverage options, a night club and an American Indian cultural display. Maple trees, reflecting the forests of the region, line the plaza at the casino's entrance.

Guests already seem to be enjoying Turtle Creek by bringing in another form of green - in the form of cash.

''Opening day was bigger than New Year's,'' said J. Mike DeAgostino, public relations manager for GTB properties.

Turtle Creek, located in Williamsburg near Traverse City, also benefits from its presence in a busy tourist region. The area attracts about 2 million visitors each year, according to the most recent figures from the local tourism bureau.

''Casinos are in the top seven to 10 list of things that attract people to our area,'' said Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

DeAgostino acknowledged that even with these positives, there is some concern about the sluggish economy, especially in Michigan. He said Turtle Creek is hopeful it can grow steadily without hurting Leelanau Sands Casino, the GTB's other gaming property, about 30 miles away.

''There's enough distance between the casinos that there may be a little draw from Leelanau Sands to Turtle Creek, but we think there are different things happening at Leelanau Sands that will still keep people there.''

The revitalized Turtle Creek replaced a casino that operated under the same name that had been open since 1996. The GTB decided it needed to branch out from the prior structure, which was smaller and disjointed from several attempts at expansion.

Casino officials were careful to reuse and recycle numerous items from the old casino, and they estimate that 80 percent of the old casino will be reused or recycled. The prior structure will soon be torn down to make way for added parking for the new Turtle Creek.