By Matt Joyce -- Associated Press
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - With the opening of a $30 million casino this spring, the Northern Arapaho Tribe is betting that its earlier ventures into Las Vegas-style gaming have whet Wyoming's appetite for more high-stakes slot machines and card games.
The tribe plans to open the 45,000-square-foot casino overlooking Riverton May 1, nearly three years after a federal appeals court ruled that the tribe could open Class III gaming operations without signing a compact with the state.
''For those that like to gamble, it's going to be a big draw,'' said Jim Conrad, general manager of the Wind River Casino. ''They've experienced that they get more play time with us than any of the states around us.''
The Wind River Indian Reservation is already home to three casinos, two belonging to the Northern Arapaho and one belonging to the Eastern Shoshone. The new casino will be called Wind River Casino, while the current casino with the same name will become the 789 Smoke Shop and Casino.
Attendance at the existing Wind River Casino has increased 20 percent each month over the same period the previous year, Conrad said. About 350 to 400 people are playing slot machines on an average Friday or Saturday afternoon.
Conrad said 30 percent to 40 percent of the casino's customers travel more than two hours to get to the central Wyoming casino, which sits on state Highway 789 between Riverton and Lander.
''We consider our regular customers to be from Casper, Rock Springs, Green River, Rawlins, Jackson Hole,'' Conrad said. ''We already have customers coming in from Cheyenne and Laramie and Billings, [Mont.].''
The new casino will have 750 slot machines and eight table games. It will also have a restaurant, a gift shop and a nonsmoking room with 70 slot machines.
To bring in customers, the casino plans to provide bus service to cities as far away as Cheyenne - about 250 miles away - and Billings - about 185 miles away - as well as Laramie, Gillette and Sheridan. Conrad said he was interviewing bus coordinators.
''We have a lot of people who come from outside of the state of Wyoming on a regular basis,'' Conrad said. ''Nevada is a long way away for a lot of people, and that's who we compare to with the kinds of games we have.''
In 2005, the Northern Arapaho won the right to have Las Vegas-style games after a five-year legal battle and after years of talks with Wyoming failed to produce an agreement on a gaming compact. During the litigation, the federal courts found that Wyoming failed to negotiate with the tribe in good faith.
Doug Thompson, chairman of the Fremont County Commission, said one of the results of the legal battle is that the state and local counties haven't received any funds to help deal with side effects related to the neighboring casinos.
He said the new casino will probably exacerbate problems associated with the casinos - more traffic, more solid waste in the county disposal system, and more law enforcement calls to the casino parking lot.
''I don't think it's a good thing for the community, but it doesn't do any good to oppose it. It's already there,'' Thompson said.
''I don't believe gaming is the best form of economic development for anybody, because of the social problems that go along with it,'' he said. ''They're draining a lot of money out of the county and also their own tribal members.''
Melanie Gambler, vice chairman of the Northern Arapaho Gaming Agency, said casino operations netted the tribe $4 million last year. The new casino is projected to boost that to $5 million in 2008. Tribal leaders have said the money is badly needed for social services, and the tribe recently hosted a conference to raise awareness about gambling addiction.
Conrad said the new casino is the foundation of a new marketing campaign called ''The Northern Arapaho Experience.'' He said the tribe wants to make the casino a major destination, particularly for out-of-state tourists. The effort includes plans this summer for a demonstration of tipis, Native dancing and storytelling on the casino grounds, he said.
''People outside the state want authenticity. We'll be able through dance and stories to tell the Northern Arapaho story,'' he said.
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