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Native American casinos play to win

Courtesy Hard Rock Casino Tulsa

The Indian gaming industry is huge and poised to explode when the economy stabilizes. Nationwide, 240 Indian tribes and their governments in 30 states generated nearly $30 billion in gross revenues from gaming in 2009, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.

Another $3.5 billion that year came from related hospitality entertainment services, resorts, hotels, golf courses, restaurants, retail stores and more.

Tribes are gearing up for or completing expansions in several states to remain competitive with non-Indian gaming facilities. Take Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel in North Carolina, for example. When its $630 million expansion is completed in 2012, the 56-acre property will be transformed into one of the premier gaming destinations in the Southeast.

“We like to say we are creating a masterpiece,” said Norma Moss, assistant general manager for resort operations.

In December, Harrah’s Cherokee opened its 21-story Creek hotel tower with 532 rooms. High-level suites are available now; luxury suites will open later this spring. The casino floor will expand to 195,000 square feet. Old casino space will be renovated.

“It’s a new, fresh environment for our guests who have been coming to Cherokee for years. We want to build an even stronger loyalty to them and to let people who have never been here know our story,” Moss said.

Something else that’s relatively new to the site is alcohol. The property was dry, but the Eastern Band of Cherokees passed a referendum allowing sales at Harrah’s.

“Because we can now serve it [alcohol], we’re adding a wide variety of outstanding culinary offerings,” said Moss.

The expansion was years in planning. Moss believes that the tribe understands it is in the gaming business to stay and therefore has to compete.

“The economy has changed just since these decisions were made, but the tribe never looked back,” she said. “We knew it was the right thing to do. The economy will rebound.”

Meanwhile, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma offers visitors additional amenities at its Tulsa property, said Jennifer Hardesty, communications manager for Cherokee Nation Businesses.

“The original casino was built in the early ’90s. There have been four or five expansion projects since then,” said Hardesty. “In 2009, we added the hotel and rebranded to become Hard Rock Casino Tulsa. In 2010, we added the events center we call the Joint.”

The hotel has 450 rooms and eight luxury suites with everything under one roof — gaming, entertainment, nightlife and restaurants.

“The Hard Rock brand is internationally recognized for being fun. It blends rock-and-roll history with quality entertainment. By developing that in Tulsa, we’ve created a reason for tourists to come spend time with us,” said Hardesty.

Several new large-scale Indian casino hotels or resorts have opened in recent years. California, which has only been into casino gaming for a decade, already has about 70 Indian casinos and is the nation’s top Native American casino revenue producer.

And the state is still not saturated. Tribes are looking at more urban sites, like San Francisco and Sacramento, both considered to be potentially hot Indian gaming locations.

Arizona is also a busy Indian gaming state. The Phoenix-Scottsdale area has seen two new casino expansions since 2009: Casino Arizona at Salt River and Casino Arizona at Talking Stick Resort.

Other Western states like New Mexico, Oregon and Washington are also seeing new or expanded gaming sites.

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