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New American Indian casino resorts thrive in spite of slowed economy

The Tulalip Resort Casino, located about 30 miles north of Seattle, sits near Puget Sound amid some of the most beautiful countryside in the United States.

With its proximity to the Seattle area and the Canadian border, the resort’s location places it where the resort can benefit from high-volume traffic from two countries.

“We do quite a bit of business with residents of Vancouver and British Columbia,” said Ken Kettler, president and COO of the property. “This is our first full year of operation, and once people experience Tulalip, they’re dying to come back.”

The resort is one of the newest ventures for the Tulalip Tribes, who opened it in June last year.


Photo courtesy Tulalip Resort Casino The Tulalip Resort Casino Gallery Lounge features pieces of artwork created by Tulalip Indian artists.

Though the economy began to falter in the fall, the Tulalip Resort Casino manages to be at 100 percent capacity each Friday and Saturday, Kettler said. The property and other recently opened gaming facilities, such as the Red Hawk Casino on the Shingle Springs Rancheria near Sacramento, Calif., and the Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel in Williamsburg, Mich., have managed to maintain strong sales and customer bases in spite of the economy.

Part of the draw to the Tulalip Resort Casino, aside from the numerous amenities at the four-star four-diamond hotel, is the Quil Ceda Village on the reservation in Tulalip, Wash., which has a casino and resort as well as shopping centers to the north. In other words, guests have plenty to see, eat and do, Kettler added.

Monday through Friday, the Tulalip Resort Casino has tour buses out of Vancouver and Seattle coming in. When guests arrive, the first things they see are two ponds, featuring an orca whale leaping out of the water and other whale figures in the pond.

“It’s quite an entry,” Kettler said. “It’s a nice looking building from the outside, too, but people have no idea how beautiful it is until they come inside.”

The Tulalip Indians are known for artwork and carvings, and one of the first things guests see when entering the facility are welcome poles, carved by Tulalip artists, with hands extending, welcoming all who enter.

“That’s the uniqueness of our hotel and resort,” Kettler said. “There’s so much Tulalip artwork that’s blended into the design; there’s a lot of history blended throughout the resort.”

The variety of artwork includes stained glass, wood carvings and metal work, all created by tribal artisans. Even the carpeting in the resort and hotel was selected by the tribe’s art committee to reflect their style.

One piece of artwork, a stained glass window created by Tulalip artist James Madison, shows a red background and features the eye of the fisherman. Lights behind the stained glass window illuminate the piece.

The resort offers many amenities and includes a 30,000-square-foot convention center with three ballrooms.

In keeping with Tulalip history and artwork throughout the resort, the Blackfish restaurant offers 75 menu items, which include Tulalip tribal recipes.

Though the economy may be weak, the Tulalip Resort Casino is working on the summer schedule for the amphitheater, which can hold 2,400 people. The venue will have six-to-eight shows, Kettler said. And by November or December, he said the tribe will open an $8 million museum featuring tribal artifacts.

Before the resort opened, 400 new team members were hired, bringing the total employee count to 2,400.

“Business has been very robust on the weekends, and we had very strong business coming out of Canada, until Canada declared its recession; business slowed down a little bit.”

He said resort sales staff has worked on increasing weekday business and overnight tour packages to offset that. The resort also does well with business meetings and will host the Washington Indian Gaming Association retreat in mid-July.

The resort also looks forward to good business when the Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver next year.


Photo courtesy Red Hawk Casino The Porte Cochere, part of the entryway to the casino from Red Hawk Parkway, is designed with the rooftop shaped like an acorn cap. Acorns once served as a primary source of food for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.

“As soon as we get into the late fall, we’ll see some of that activity,” Kettler said. What the Tulalip Resort Casino sees now are people planning business trips not six months in advance but two weeks in advance, making it harder to predict how business will be.

“We’re not exempt from it by any means, but we’ve not been hit as hard,” Kettler said. “We see a pretty steady future. It’s not as robust as last year, but we’ve planned accordingly. We’ve had no layoffs. We have a good business plan in place.”

He said the Tulalip tribal government has cut back, but because the tribe now has the resort, it has new revenues as well.

“We’ll be prepared for the future when things do come back.”

Just as the Tulalip Indian Tribe has steady business in spite of the economy, so too do the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians in El Dorado County, Calif.

The tribe opened the Red Hawk Casino in December on its Shingle Springs Rancheria. So far, business has been great, according to Peter Fordham, Red Hawk Casino general manager.

“We’re seeing great business for the first 90 days we’ve been open,” Fordham said. “We got a great response. Obviously, we’re not recession proof. We’re seeing a great customer count. It’s obvious they’re not spending as much as they would have if we had opened two to three years ago.”

He said that for now, the tribe has a new casino and plans for a hotel in phase two of the project. After evaluating the economy and finding out what their customers want, Fordham said phase two could begin in 12 to 18 months.

“We’re in a beautiful location just outside of Sacramento, and we’re right in the middle of a tourist location.” He said the tribe currently has a partnership plan with hotels in the area to accommodate casino guests.

“We, obviously, because of the economy, are more cautious than we would have been a couple of years ago, but we have been pleasantly surprised and we have to be more creative and work smarter and do more with fewer resources,” Fordham said. The tribe believes this is a strong market with “a great future.”

The Red Hawk Casino project is the result of 10 years of planning and preparation. “We have a fabulous facility in a great location, and the tribe will have a lasting asset in the market for many years to come. One of the things that has been a pleasant surprise is just how well received we’ve been in the local community; we’re the largest employer in the county.”

The casino has created more than 1,700 jobs in a tough economic climate.

With the completion of the Red Hawk Parkway, a new California Highway 40 interchange, guests have easy access to the casino, which is situated on a mountain top, offering guests impressive views of the area.

In Williamsburg, Mich., the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians’ grand opening of their new Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel could not have been more welcomed.

The tribe, unlike some other tribes with their first casino and resort operations, had operated the former Turtle Creek Casino. This facility was torn down to make way for the new casino and a 137-room hotel, said Derek Bailey, tribal chairman.

“We had a great grand opening and a fantastic showing.”

The people attending the grand opening event included Ernie Stevens Jr., National Indian Gaming Association chairman, Michigan state officials, tribal officials and community members.

“Business has been going very well considering the economic downturn, and we have very good weekends,” Bailey said. “On the weekends when we had significant snowfall, that snowfall impacted customer attendance. That plays into the ability of the customers to make their way to the facility.”

But when weekend weather is more favorable, he said the casino and resort see an increase in customer attendance.

Bailey said the new property has a contemporary design that is “very linear.”

“When we first opened, we’d hear comments like, ‘I feel like I’m in Vegas.’ That’s what we wanted.”


Guests aren’t the only ones impressed with the Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel design; the tribe won the best design for a hotel and casino at the G2E Conference in November.

One of the facility’s attractions is the Bourbon 72 restaurant that offers steak, seafood and what Bailey described as “delicious desserts.”

Other elements of the facility, such as the Towers of Power, featured on each side of the gaming floor, allow customers access to service staff and service bars. On each side of the towers are monitors broadcasting different stations or channels, from sports to news and entertainment. Customers also have access to high speed Internet throughout the casino and hotel.