The Yakama Nation plans to break ground in May on a $90 million casino expansion that will add a six-story hotel, conference facilities and a spa on its central Washington reservation.
Across the Columbia River, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are plugging away on a $67 million project of their own. The expansion includes more casino space, a Cineplex and high-rise hotel amid the wheat fields and cattle ranches of northeast Oregon.
For the first time, revenue at Indian casinos declined across the country in 2009, thanks in large part to the economic downturn, but that isn't preventing tribes from expanding their gambling operations in big ways.
Dozens of new casinos and expansion projects have been completed in the past two years nationally, and dozens more are planned, according to the latest Indian Gaming Industry Report.
"The economy will improve at some point, construction costs are down, and tribes are trying to prepare for the future," analyst Alan Meister said. "When things turn around, you don't want to have to start from scratch. You want to be able to hit the ground running."
The Yakamas announced their expansion plans Thursday amid the dings and buzzers of slot machines in their existing Legends Casino.
The tribe's general membership approved the expansion March 8, tribal council chairman Harry Smiskin said. The project will enable the tribe to convert existing gambling space into a 29,000-square-foot events center to offer more entertainment and, in turn, draw crowds.
"In order for Legends Casino to remain competitive, we have to grow with the market," he said. "The expansion is something we all look forward to very much and is something we know will be beneficial to the tribe."
Smiskin said the tribe hopes to add 150-200 jobs once the development is complete in 18 months.
For the Umatilla tribes, the expansion marks a new effort to draw a younger crowd to the casino already frequented by gray-haired slot-lovers. The tribe lures visitors with a casino, small hotel, RV park, golf course and museum, and the expansion will add 20,000 square feet of gambling space, a four-screen movie theater and a 10-story hotel.
"We wanted to build a beacon to draw people here, and the only way to do that was to go up," said Gary George, chief executive officer of the Umatillas' Wildhorse Resort and Casino.
The tribe estimates 60 percent of its visitors come from the local area and within a 70-mile radius. The goal of the expansion is to become a regional destination resort appealing to residents within 200 miles of the casino, George said.
Some 237 Indian tribes across the country operate casinos in 28 states. Tribes use the revenue for education, economic development, health care, police and fire protection, housing and cultural and charitable works.
In 2009, revenue fell for the first time at Indian casinos across the country, declining 1 percent from a year earlier, according to the report.
However, commercial gaming overall has been hurt by the recession, while Indian gaming has been able to withstand some of the economic downturns in recent years, Meister said. Even though there was a decline, it was only 1 percent, and the projection for Indian gaming is positive overall.
George acknowledged that some tribes have experienced financial difficulties because they overextended and overbuilt their casinos. That has not been the case with the Umatillas and their Wildhorse Resort and Casino, he said.
"We're very leery of reinvesting without clear thought of where we're going and how we get there," he said. "Revenues have been flat in the last few years, but in this economy, banks would say flat is the new up."
Smiskin also called the economy a "definite concern."
"When people don't have disposable income anymore, that's one of the things that gets cut," he said. "But with all the demographics and marketing analysis, we feel a strategy of this nature will add income to the Yakama Nation."
Besides, he said, with the Umatillas already expanding their casino and marketing to consumers in the Yakamas' territory, his tribe has to send a message across the river: "We're not horsing around."