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Tohono O’odham Nation: Thriving in the Desert

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Arizona’s Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment --- enterprises of the Tohono O’odham Nation --- are already gems in the desert with a possibility that more jewels could be added in the future.

Three properties currently exist in Southern Arizona, and although plans are being contested, the tribe continues to move forward on a fourth venture, a $300 million hotel-casino --- the state’s largest --- planned for 50 acres in the metro Phoenix area.

Until that one comes on-line, the Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise consists of what is internally referred to as DDT, DDS, and DDW --- Desert Diamond Tucson; Desert Diamond Sahuarita, and an outpost casino, Desert Diamond Why, on the way to Puerto Penasco, Mexico.

According to the tribe’s web page: “The mission of the three casinos is to provide the means for a better quality of life for Tohono O’odham Nation and all the people in Southern Arizona.”

Downstream Casino Resort

General Manager of Desert Diamond's Tucson and Sahuarita properties, Tohono O'odham tribal member Henry Childs.

Providing tribal employment is one way. “We employ between 1,300 and 1,400 workers on the three properties and tribal and/or other Native American applicants are preferred. Currently preferred hiring represents about 22 percent of our work force and I’m a good example of that,” says General Manager Henry Childs who grew up on the Tohono O’odham Reservation and for the last 5 years has overseen operations at DDT and DDS. “For me, it’s not just a matter of doing a job, it’s personal. I’m helping make an impact for my tribe.”

“Bingo in a tent is where it all started for us in 1983 and it took a number of years before we decided to expand. The days of just putting up a casino and expecting to make money --- those days are over.”

The Desert Diamond Casino held a soft opening in October 2007 with a hotel and conference center added in December --- the first casino/hotel facility in Southern Arizona.

“This place is a great addition to Tucson with our hotel rooms, conference center, and casino amenities, but its definitely challenging in this marketplace,” Childs says of his 300,000-square-foot facility that contains 75,000-square-feet of gaming space…room enough for 1,089 slot machines. Add to the entertainment options 12 poker tables, 24 blackjack games, a 500-seat Bingo Hall, a 400 seat buffet, an award-winning steak house, and a couple of bars, nightclubs, and lounges, and you get an all-inclusive package for travelers and locals alike.

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“We have 148 rooms and suites with occupancy rate running roughly 75 percent, which isn’t bad in our summertime heat and a depressed economy. We’ve gone through some growing pains, especially in a down economy, but we’re learning from it and going forward.”

Despite the challenges: “We’re ranked within the Top 5 facilities statewide based on guest experience. You don’t necessarily have to be bigger --- as long as somehow you’re better at what you do.”

That’s good, because the property sits on just 41 acres and any expansion plans, up or out with a hotel tower or casino growth, would eat up parking space. “We’re limited. We can’t grow out much and can’t grow up because we’re near Tucson International Airport with their height restrictions.”

Limitations are fewer at a second spot that opened 10 years ago, the nearby Desert Diamond Sahuarita site along Interstate 19, halfway between Tucson and the Nogales border with Mexico. “We have room there to expand and we’re looking into feasibility studies,” Childs says. “We continue to analyze, putting the numbers together and looking at what we might add, perhaps a hotel or a golf course.”

Presently the 185,000-square-feet already built-out does quite well as a casino and an entertainment venue where general admission can seat 2,500-3,000 patrons (like the 2,000+ full house that recently showed up for a Randy Travis concert). “This is a miniature version of what we have in Tucson. You’ll find slots, Kino, sports bars and eating establishments from grill areas to fine dining at Agave Restaurant. There’s also a tree-lined outdoor courtyard with a large water display, lots of open-air space for arts and crafts fairs as well as a study of wildlife that comes in from the surrounding desert for a drink.

The third part of the Desert Diamond property triad is nothing like its two larger cousins. Here, in a much smaller community that acts as a pit stop for Rocky Point, Mexico travelers, you’ll find cold beer and 75 noisy slot machines. “Location wasn’t necessarily the deciding factor for putting a casino here. It does its part in revenue generation, but like any of our other properties, it has to justify itself. We do things differently here to help generate dollars and be a part of an expanding community and the employment factor (50 workers) is one example.”

The Tohono O’odham, one of the larger tribes in the Southwest (28,000 members) with the second largest tribal land base (2.8 million acres), have lived in the region “since time immemorial” according to Tribal Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. “Our members, living both on and off the reservation, have a rich history and culture that continues to thrive today.”

Examples of that history and culture can be found at both DDT and DDS. In Tucson, a specially-designed rotunda with photos and video presentations offers visitors a tribal introduction in addition to their casino experience. “We have pottery, woven baskets, blankets, ceremonial dresses that give background on what the tribe is all about,” Childs says. “We don’t want guests to think the O’odham peoples are just about gaming. There’s history involved here and we want visitors to experience our culture as well.”

Producing revenue is still the main mission, generating monies used to better tribal conditions. Says Childs: “You need to think strategically with a minimum 3-year business plan on how you want to proceed and you’ve got to be aggressive in your marketing. A lot of what we’re doing right now is reinvesting back into the properties, making sure we remain competitive in tough times.”