Quechan Casino Resort opens way ahead of schedule

Michelle Tirado

WINTERHAVEN, Calif. – The Quechan Tribe had much to celebrate Feb. 13.

Not only did it open the doors to its new Quechan Casino Resort ahead of schedule, but it welcomed a surprisingly robust and steady stream of visitors that day, loads of locals eager to experience some Las Vegas-style gaming, dining and entertainment.

ROEL: What it took to put the Quechan casino on the fast track

ROEL Construction has a reputation for doing fast-track projects, but getting one done more than four months early, as it did with the Quechan Casino Resort, it hardly ever does.

“I think finishing one this early is pretty rare. You have to have a lot of things go your way,” said Brent Hughes, ROEL group manager.

So, what went ROEL’s way during this 15-month project? For one, Hughes said, it was a design/build, which gave the 90-year-old construction company a greater level of control; it had that single point of responsibility. The company was able to engage the subcontractors very early in the process, and there was a common goal, one that everyone involved was committed to achieving.

With two offices in California, one in Arizona and one in Nevada, the award-winning contractor and its workforce knows how to tackle a project in the Southwest. Even so, the Quechan project was challenging, as it demanded working in a remote and hot desert setting.

During the summer months, temperatures frequently soared above 120 degrees. Hughes said 50 temporary, gas-powered light stands were put up to allow the crew to work during the much cooler evening hours. Some crews started work at 10 p.m., while the bulk clocked in at 3 a.m. and worked until about noon, just as the heat of the day started reaching its most oppressive.

“By having the flexibility to have split shifts and pretty much have the site opened 24 hours to accommodate the subcontractors in the most efficient manner really allowed us to pick up time,” Hughes said.

Another constraint that had to be overcome were some power lines that bisected the site. Hughes said the tribe and local municipality had arranged to have them relocated, but they were not according to schedule. They were removed four months later than planned. Rather than suspend work, the crews did what work could be done around the lines.

During the high season, thousands of winter birds flock to the area to escape the cold northern states. They are gone before the sweltering low season kicks in. Opening early allowed the resort to attract some of those part-time residents before they returned to their other homes.

The Quechan Casino Resort is not the only tribal gaming property that ROEL has worked on. In 2008, it won two Global Gaming Expo Casino Design awards for its work on the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif. It has also completed projects at the Barona Casino and Spotlight 29 Casino, both in California.

The $200 million, 297,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-themed complex, located off exit 166 on I-8 in Winterhaven, opened four and a half months early. With its five-story, 166-room hotel, four eateries and 2,400-seat event center, there is nothing quite like it in the Yuma area.

Opening at 10:20 a.m., folks braved traffic jams, a full parking lot and a long line to be among the first to visit the “Q,” as the property is being branded. The casino resort estimates that 25,000 went through the door on opening day.

Marty Gross held executive positions at a few Las Vegas properties before being hired as the Q’s CEO in October 2008. There he did two $1 billion openings in a row and saw only four to five hours of consistent business. On the Q’s opening day, he said, “We had a 15-hour stretch of consistent business. I have never seen that before.”

The Q’s state-of-the-art casino offers 1,000 slot machines, 24 table games and a poker room. The dining options include the Ocotillo Buffet, Ironwood Steakhouse, Sidewinders Lounge and Gila Blend Cafe. The hotel features a resort-style pool and lazy river, and the event center, the largest in the area, boasts 20,000-square-feet of space, with a large boardroom and two breakout rooms.

Under construction and then opening during a national recession, a time when revenues at casinos across the country have seen their worst declines, the tribe did have apprehensions. Quechan President Mike Jackson Sr., said there are concerns any time the tribe opens a new enterprise, but they can’t be afraid of progress.

“This casino is for the future. The recession is not going to last forever. We will wait it out like all the other tribes are doing. We will be successful.”

Jackson believes the new venture will help turn the economy around locally. It has already created around 1,000 jobs in an area that has endured some of the Southwest’s worst unemployment rates.

The Arizona-California tribe owns another gaming operation, Paradise Casino, which is located on the reservation’s Arizona side, putting it closer to Yuma. Although it is about five miles down the road from the new casino, Gross said that they do not compete against each other. Paradise is more of a slot facility, and the Q is a full resort.

While the Q’s primary market is the local area, or residents in Yuma County and California’s Imperial County, the tribe wants to lure visitors from Phoenix, Tucson and San Diego, people who used to go to Las Vegas.

“In today’s economic times, most people are staying home. They are not going to Vegas. So, we are taking advantage of this trend,” Jackson said.

The property’s early opening is an accomplishment worthy of praise, as it just doesn’t happen often in the casino construction business. It was also finished under budget, making it an even greater feat.

Steven Jones, senior director, project management for Cumming Corporation, the consulting firm hired to manage the project, said with construction projects of this kind, there are three things to shoot for: budget, schedule and quality. According to Jones, who has worked with at least 20 tribes, issues arise with 90 percent of such projects, whether it’s running over schedule or over budget, or quality has to be sacrificed to meet schedules and budgets.

“To get the trifecta, [it] takes a great deal of teamwork and a great partnership with the tribe and the contractor. The three-way partnership that we developed early on made it possible to get decisions made quickly, to move it quickly through the process.”

The tribe has a construction committee, comprised of tribal members with construction experience, to oversee enterprise building projects. Jackson credits this committee as well as Cumming Corporation, ROEL Construction, the contractor and Friedmutter Group, the architectural firm, for the early completion.

“We had top-notch all the way around.”