NEW YORK - Desert luxury bloomed for a brief instant in a lower Manhattan
loft as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians brought a preview of their new
$250 million casino resort to town.
The Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa is scheduled to open in December in the
California desert between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Its dramatic
23-story hotel will sit at the gateway to a string of Southland tribal
casinos that is transforming the tourist economy in the region. The Agua
Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, for instance, is revitalizing the
business downtown of Palm Springs with its new casino resort at the heart
of the city. Smaller tribes are opening casinos along the main Interstate
10 route through the desert to Arizona.
But on June 10 the show belonged to the Morongos. In two promotion parties,
Chairman Maurice B. Lyons introduced tribal leaders and senior staff of the
casino resort to a selection of New York-based travel and lifestyle
journalists. With the assistance of the high-powered New York public
relations firm Burson-Marsteller, the Morongos transformed the 14th floor
of an old warehouse overlooking the Hudson River into a sampling of their
One corner recreated the resort's spa, called Sage after the sacred white
sage plant that thrives on the Morongo Reservation. Attendants gave chair
massages and manicures and handed out samples of its "all-natural" line of
beauty care products. Tribal council member Anne Hutton and spa consultant
Casey Olson told the journalists that they expected the spa to be a major
attraction, especially for "non-gaming" guests.
Several buffet tables offered another main attraction, gourmet eats
prepared by Christophe Douheret, executive chef for the resort, and Michael
Shrader, executive chef for the N9NE Group, which will operate an eponymous
steakhouse, an Italian restaurant called Belly and two nightspots at the
resort. Servers were flown in from N9NE Group nightclubs in Las Vegas to
offer the guests ominously blue "Lost in Space" cocktails that will be
featured at the resort's SpaceBar or a fruity but also potent concoction
from the Desert Rain club.
Not to forget the main business, four half-moon tables offered lessons in
blackjack with gratis chips that the dealers replenished after guests ran
through them. (As the guests well understood, this will not happen at the
real casino.) The dealers came from a local service that caters to
fund-raising parties, but the tables were shipped in from the tribe's
existing Casino Morongo. The owner of the New Jersey-based party service
was so impressed with the tables that he offered to buy them.
In a slide show presentation, the hotel architect Jon Jerde said he was
inspired in designing the resort by the natural beauty of the surrounding
San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains. The hotel colors would reflect the
natural hues of the rock face, and rooms would feature views of the 44-acre
setting. Unlike the theme resorts of the Las Vegas strip, which he also
helped shape, Jerde said the Morongo resort would feature "just nature
Jerde spoke with some authority, since his firm the Jerde Partnership had
designed such Las Vegas landmarks as the ultra-continental Bellagio and
Treasure Island, which once offered a full-scale recreation of a pirate
The construction is also drawing on the experience of Perini Builders, one
of the nation's largest specialists in hotel construction. The construction
firm celebrated the "topping-out" of the hotel's undulating roof, the
hoisting of its highest piece of structural steel, on March 31.
According to regional economists, the resort will create 5,800 jobs,
directly and indirectly, by 2008. Together with the Agua Caliente project
in downtown Palm Springs, the economic impact could reach more than $800
million a year, supplanting the nearby March Air Force Base as the region's
main economic engine.
Chairman Lyons emphasized in an interview with Indian Country Today that
the tribe was managing the casino itself, not through a management company.
The Casino General Manager Bill Davis was an employee of the tribe, he
said, and Morongo members held senior positions in its operations,
including head of surveillance. "Why hire someone else to lose our money
for us?" he said. "We'd rather lose it for ourselves."
On the contrary, though, the Morongos are finding that cash flow breeds
cash. The new resort, said Lyons, was being funded by the profits from
Casino Morongo. Although tribal members voted on major business decisions,
Lyons said they accepted limits on per capita payments for the sake of
reinvestment. He also said the tribe resisted the temptation to interfere
in business operations. "We don't try to micro-manage it," he said.
The Morongo Tribe already employs some 2,000 people, mainly non-Indian,
making it the largest private employer in its immediate area. Chairman
Lyons said the tribe has emphasized diversification, also investing in a
huge water-bottling plant with the Perrier Group of America. When the plant
is fully operating, he said, it would employ 300.
The Morongos also own the Hadley Fruit Orchards, which started as a
roadside fruit stand and now sells fruit, nuts and its own trail mix over
the Internet. The tribe bought it from the Hadley family in 1999. "During
the '30s," said Chairman Lyons, "Mr. Hadley [its founder Paul Hadley] used
to bring us dates and nuts. He was going out of business, and we didn't
want his name to be lost."
As he spoke, the press party in the background was making sure that the
Morongos name would be remembered, not only in southern California, but
also in the media capital of the East.