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Northern Arapaho expands gaming

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RIVERTON, Wyo. - Construction on the Northern Arapaho Tribe's larger casino on the Wind River Reservation is nearing completion.

Wind Rose Casino, the tribe's existing casino, will be renamed Wind River Smokeshop after the new casino opens. The new casino will be named Wind River Casino.

Melanie Gambler, primary regulator for the tribe, explained that casino-style gaming is only a couple of years old; prior to 2005, only the social gaming, bingo and pull tabs of Class I and II gaming were allowed. The present casino has been in operation for 15 years, but only as a bingo hall until 2005 when slot machines and table tables were permitted.

''We don't have a compact and never will. What we have in lieu of that is secretarial procedures with the Department of Interior. It's sort of like a compact, but we don't have any kind of relationship with the state of Wyoming in regards to gaming,'' she said. A 10-year court battle ensued over interpretation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, with the tribe eventually suing the state. A mediator looked at the tribe's last best offer. That was forwarded to Interior and procedures were received in September 2005 for Class III gaming.

''Now we have really neat gaming here because there's no state regulatory oversight and no revenue sharing. There's absolutely no relationship with the state whatsoever,'' Gambler explained. ''Five years ago, the net revenue was $1.2 million and last year was $23.7 million. Most of the change was after slot machines went in,'' she added.

The present casino, part of a truck stop complex, is approximately 30,000 square feet. The new casino, visible on a hill just west of Riverton and west of the present casino, will be 44,000 square feet. The existing building will retain some machines, but will be changed to expand the truck stop with showers being added and space converted into meeting rooms; it will also house the human resources, gaming agency and most accounting offices.

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Construction on the new casino should be completed by late December. If all goes as planned, they'll start transitioning to the new site shortly afterward. A grand opening is planned for early February 2008.

The new casino will start with 700 - 750 slot machines, up from the present 530. It will also have five table games and that's expected to increase to eight. More types of table games including craps, roulette and possibly three-card poker, may be added.

An events room is planned with a stage and seating for around 600 people. A full prime rib buffet and a separate deli will provide dining opportunities. No liquor will be offered.

Gambler explained that the majority of visitors to the casino are non-Indian.

''The reaction to gaming started out to be negative in the local communities. Everybody thought the casino would never work: 'There are not enough people. There's not enough tourism. There's not enough anything to make it successful.' We've proven otherwise. We had an economic impact study done and a market analysis. We totally blew past their estimates with Class II gaming, so we're way ahead [of] what they ever projected,'' she said.

''We don't do a per capita payment. That has to be approved by the secretary of Interior. Our need is great within the tribe because we've been dependent on federal grants and state funding. Now we've been able to fund our education, the tribal college and the Council of Elders. Last year, from gaming revenues, we transferred $4 million to the tribe to help fund their programs. We've also gone from 17 employees to 300. Payrolls are way over $1 million, which also goes out into the local economy.''