Tribal gaming hits its stride - Global Gaming Expo focuses on Indian country

LAS VEGAS – “This didn’t happen overnight. This is no explosion. It’s hard work from all of you.” That was the opening message from National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. during a keynote address at this year’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas in November.

But Stevens warned the more than 1,500 people in attendance at a panel discussion, titled “Tribal Gaming Summit: The Future of Indian Gaming,” not to rest or be content with the success tribal casinos are having. “We are nowhere near where we need to be. There are too many people in Indian country who are still in poverty. We must continue to fight so we can make a better tomorrow for our young ones.”

G2E is an annual showcase where gaming companies and suppliers gather to share ideas, unveil new products and plan for the future. The three-day conference, held Nov. 14 – 16, featured more than 322,000 square feet of exhibit space; the culinary trade show F&B at G2E; a design and decor pavilion; and more than 400 speakers, 140 sessions and workouts, including an entire track devoted to American Indian gaming.

“We’re from all over Indian country, and we get to talk to people from all over the world,” Stevens said of the conference. “We are not a sidebar. We are a large part of the success of G2E. In Indian country, we call this the ‘North American success story.’ Las Vegas is a lot of things, but when we come here we come to work.”

Today, 224 tribes operate Indian casinos in 28 states. In 2005, those casinos captured $22.6 billion in gross revenue and saw 22 million visitors, according to NIGA, and industry officials expect a continued upswing. But new challenges await when NIGA gets back to business at the start of the year.

Stevens reflected on the midterm elections, saying, “With the turn in Congress comes a great challenge. We need to work together for the betterment of Indian country. We need to work both sides of the aisle.” One priority is fighting for the rights of tribes to construct off-reservation gaming operations.

Other panelists looked fondly at past success and longingly toward a future filled of hope. “We are always going to be stronger together. The future is bright,” said Ernie Stebbens, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. Washington is on the road to building destination resorts, such as Little Creek Resort, just north of Olympia, with other tribes investing in areas outside of gaming.

The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation announced in October a partnership with Great Wolf Resorts – North America’s leading provider of indoor waterpark resorts – to construct a facility in Grand Mound, halfway between Seattle and Portland, Ore. Slated to open in early 2008, Great Wolf Lodge will contain an eight-story, 393-room, all-suite resort with a conference center and 442,000-square-foot, year-round indoor waterpark complete with a treehouse waterfort, six waterslides and other thrill rides.

“The tribe is excited about partnering with Great Wolf Resorts,” said David Burnett, chairman of the Chehalis Tribe. “It is a business model that makes sense and sounds like a whole lot of fun, too.”

It’s projects like Great Wolf Lodge that has Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, optimistic that tribes will seek other entrepreneurial ventures. “We’re seeing tribes invest in real estate and hotels, and partnering with each. It’s fantastic to see. The future is very bright in California and the U.S. We better start wearing sunglasses, that’s how bright the future is in Indian country.”

Tim Wapato, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington and the first-ever executive director of NIGA, gave a historical perspective of Indian gaming discussing how it came about. He said that not only was Congress opposed to allowing gaming on tribal land back in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the Nevada Resort Association fought it as well. “They were afraid that Las Vegas would shutter up and die.”

But an organized NIGA conducted surveys of the American public, finding overwhelmingly that they supported Indian-operated casinos. NIGA began lobbying in Washington and eventually won out, convincing the National Governors’ Association and swaying Congress to approve the measure after a near-unanimous vote against it.

“Our whole purpose in life is to dispel ignorance about Indians and sovereignty,” Wapato said. “It doesn’t look like we’ll ever be out of a job.”