It started as a vision – as a means to provide better housing, medical care and job opportunities to tribal members. Now, 25 years later, that vision of Sault Tribe’s leadership has grown into Kewadin Casinos, a successful enterprise that has paid off in so many ways.
Kewadin Casinos is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. Kewadin’s five northern Michigan locations in Sault Ste. Marie, St. Ignace, Hessel, Manistique and Christmas employ 1,000 people with an annual payroll of more than $25 million. Last year, the five Upper Peninsula casinos drew 3.5 million customers from around the state and country to their facilities.
The casinos’ success has provided funds to expand the tribe’s business holdings from one casino to five and take ownership of multiple non-gaming enterprises. The casinos have brought year-round tourism to an area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that was once only a summer destination, contributed millions to Michigan’s economy and donated millions more.
“It was amazing when we first opened. Casinos were a new thing up here and there was a lot of excitement as people were introduced to casino gaming,” said Steve Sprecker, general manager of Kewadin’s St. Ignace casino and hotel. “It has been really amazing and given us prideful satisfaction to be a part of and watch Kewadin evolve from a small blackjack room to the five sites that we currently have.”
Sprecker started working for Kewadin as a blackjack dealer in 1986. Back when Kewadin Casinos opened that November, it was a one-room blackjack house employing 80 people. Now, the casinos offer 482,000 square feet of facility space that accommodates seven restaurants and delis, two on site hotels, a 25,000-square-foot convention facility, eight lounges and four gift shops. More than 90,000 square feet of this space is earmarked for gaming, which includes 2,000 slot machines and more than 60 table games.
“The tribe has always pursued a strategy of building and growing businesses and using the revenues to fund programs and services and create job opportunities for members,” said Joe McCoy, Sault Tribe chairman. “Our past leaders had the foresight to put in place a long-lasting economy to help tribal children, adults and elders live better lives. Without their vision so many years ago, we may not have the number of membership services we do today.”
Today’s tribal members are descendants of the Anishinaabeg who lived along the St. Mary’s River for millennia. With more than 29,000 members, the Sault Tribe is one of the nation’s largest tribes and the largest in Michigan.
While the Sault Tribe’s governmental headquarters are in Sault Ste. Marie, its service area extends across the U.P.’s seven easternmost counties. Its economic impact extends for hundreds of miles with landholdings, businesses, housing and other service centers throughout the U.P. and business interests throughout the state.
Originally, $700,000 was invested in the first Kewadin Sault Ste. Marie facility in 1985. In the late 1990s, more than $44 million committed to the same facility’s expansion. Even relatively smaller Christmas, Hessel and Manistique facilities have required a total investment of more than $17 million. The new hotel and casino in St. Ignace are most recent major investments with an initial cost figure of $36 million. Kewadin’s capital investment program included upgrades and renovations at the Sault and St. Ignace casinos during the time period 2001 – 2005. All of these projects showed a significant influence on the area.
All of these projects, and the day-to-day operations of running a business as large as Kewadin, brings a total economic output of $325.4 million annually to the Eastern Upper Peninsula according to a 2007 study by the Lansing based firm, Michigan Consultants. Additionally, total gross annual wage impact for the region was found to be $103.1 million with a gross annual regional employment impact of 3,001 positions. Between 2001 and 2005 alone, an additional $230.3 million was poured into the area along with gross regional wages of $74.6 million.
“We’re proud to be a part of achieving the tribe’s dreams,” said Tony Goetz, COO of Kewadin Casinos. “It’s amazing to see the growth of our businesses and to see what positive impact it has had on the tribe and the communities throughout the U.P.”
Goetz has worked for Kewadin since 1986.
Kewadin contributes to its communities through the Kewadin Cares Program and 2 percent distributions. The Kewadin Cares program helps make the casinos shine as a community leader through involvement and support of others. Recent projects include bringing the 1437th National Guard home for Christmas, a holiday giving program at all five casinos, and numerous local sponsorships and donations. Since 1993, the casino’s 2 percent distributions to local governments have totaled more than $30 million – $1.7 million in 2009 alone.
“The goal of our Kewadin Cares Program is to encourage goodwill in our communities, with our employees and to increase community partnerships” Goetz said.
Looking forward, the casino has set high standards for itself. According to Goetz, one of casino management’s goals is to improve the financial performance at all five properties. “We want to bring more upgraded gaming technology to all of our casino sites, move forward with plans to improve our services by installing a Springer Miller upgrade in our hotels and an Infogenesis upgrade at all of our point of sales locations, implement new forms of communications with our team members and continue to support the community through our Kewadin Cares Program. So much has happened over the past 25 years – the growth, the technology, the improvements to tribal services – we’re looking forward to what the next 25 years will bring.”
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