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Twenty years later tribal gaming still spells economic success

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, tribal gaming began as a $200 million industry with the passage of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Twenty years later, more than 400 tribal casinos in 28 states generate billions of dollars in gaming revenue each year.

By increasing state and local income tax revenues, tribal gaming has effectively raised funding for public institutions such as schools and hospitals. It has also aided surrounding communities in the creation of new and improved infrastructure in the form of roads, bridges and turnpikes. Most of all, it has increased the workforce, with some tribes becoming the largest employer within their states.

In spite of the downturn of the economy in 2008, tribal gaming remained a stalwart and lucrative component of state revenues, as well as the fiscal backbone of many tribal communities.

The American Gaming Association has released its 2008 report on tribal gaming as part of its Future Watch Series. The research, based on a survey of leading tribal gaming executives, regulators and industry analysts, makes some surprising predictions.

The report reveals tribal gaming revenue will eventually surpass commercial casino revenue. In 2007, tribal casinos took in $26 billion compared to the $34 billion taken in by commercial casinos in 12 states. Based on predictions of 38 percent of experts polled, tribal gaming revenue will exceed commercial gaming revenues within three to five years; 10 percent of those polled believe this will occur within one to two years.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed believe the economic crisis has hit the commercial casino industry harder than it has hit the tribal gaming industry.

Although there have been some inroads made toward adding non-gaming amenities to tribal casino packages, the experts contend the trend has not fully taken hold in Indian country. In commercial ventures in places like Las Vegas, development emphasis has been placed on nightclubs, golf courses, spas and entertainment. However, 67 percent of experts surveyed said the trend was not prevalent in tribal operations.

Most saw the focus of non-gaming tribal economic development in areas like hotels, restaurants and convention centers.

Interestingly, a number of tribes, like the Mohegans, are moving toward opening gaming facilities in regions where commercial casinos are already operating. In addition, a number of tribes that have long resisted gaming are now joining the ranks of tribal casino owners. One example is the Navajo Nation.

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This year the Navajo Nation opened Fire Rock Casino on trust land in New Mexico. The 6,000 square foot casino has 472 slot machines, 8 gaming tables, a poker room and a bingo parlor. The tribe expects the facility to generate $32 million a year, about one fifth of the tribe’s annual budget.

The tribe’s general counsel spokesman, Ray Etsitty, said the casino profits will be used where they are most needed, regardless of requests from special interest groups. “We have so many mouths to feed. Many Navajo families still live in substandard conditions without running water, electricity or sewage systems.

The tribe has long voted against gaming, fearing the social ills such as drinking and compulsive gambling that may come with it. While alcohol is prohibited on the reservation, the new casino will serve alcohol in the casino’s restaurant.”

In November, Michael Anderson, a former interior department deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs, addressed a crowd at the Global Gaming Exposition. Speculating on the future of Indian gaming, he pointed to the increased mainstream political influence gaming tribes now have.

Anderson claims the power of gaming tribes to influence the outcome of elections across the nation was demonstrated during the recent national elections. He says politicians from both major parties clamored for Indian support, and he believes that tribes will continue to defeat congressional attacks on tribal gaming on all levels.

Through the success of gaming operations, tribes and tribal organizations are being recognized as valuable partners in state and local business communities.

In Oklahoma City last year, the American Indian Chamber of Commerce presented its annual awards to tribally-owned businesses and civic groups that have made significant contributions to the positive development of Indian commerce.

Among this year’s winners, Kiowa Casino was recognized as the gaming/hospitality company of the year and Cherokee Nation Businesses won tribally-owned company of the year. The Comanche Nation received an award for tribal diversification, and were praised for using gaming revenues to diversify business interests; the tribe opened a driving range, water park, printing company, funeral home and T-shirt printing company.

Through diversification, gaming tribes have created stepping stones to greater opportunities for economic development and by doing so have increased political power and prestige within their states.