May 12, 2017

Indian Gaming Industry Booming, More Construction On Way


Finally surpassing its pre-Great Recession rate, the country’s Indian gaming industry is experiencing record levels of growth, with new casino construction expected for the next several years.

“It’s the fastest-growing for the casino-growing segments right now,” says Alan Meister, an analyst and economist with the Irvine, California offices of Nathan Associates Inc.

“It grew faster than traditional commercial casinos and the racinos, which are a little bit more of the new trend of casinos in the U.S.,” says Meister.

Meister is the author of the annual Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report, an exhaustive survey providing a comprehensive look at Indian gaming nationally. The most recent edition of the report was released last month.

In it, Meister notes that revenue at Indian gaming facilities nationally for 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, jumped 5.5 percent for an overall total of $30.5 billion.

Altogether there were nearly two hundred and fifty Native American tribes operating almost 357,000 gaming machines and some 7,700 table games in 494 gaming facilities across the country.

“The data is a reflection of a little bit of the final growth from the Great Recession,” says Meister, who adds that “up until recently things had been a little stagnant, with the growth a little bit slower.”

That growth has only naturally led to a wave of new Indian casino construction.

Last month the Cowlitz Tribe opened the $510 million Ilani Casino Resort, a 368,000 square foot facility offering dining and entertainment in Ridgefield, Washington.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is hoping to restart construction on a $1 billion casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. The project was halted last year due to a land use dispute. A Department of the Interior decision on that dispute could open the way for the completion of what is being called the First Light Resort and Casino.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is undertaking a $6.5 million expansion of its Ojibwa Casino in Baraga, Michigan, while its Ojibwa II casino in Marquette, Michigan is seeing an even larger $33 million expansion.

Meister says that new Indian casinos can be expected to be built in states where “the tribes are able to add new facilities and grow and expand and are not as constrained.”

“But in other places, various tribes have agreements with states that allow them to only have so many facilities and so many games, and only certain types of games,” he says. “Obviously, the different rules and regulations can be restrictive and limit the supply.”

For that reason, there are today more than one hundred operating Indian casinos in Oklahoma, ranging in size from the 2,000 square foot Madill Gaming Center in Madill, to one of the country’s largest Indian gaming facilities in the country, the 519,000 square-foot Win Star World and Casino Resort in the town of Thackerville.

In fact, notes Meister, Oklahoma is one of the two largest states for Indian casinos, the other being California, which currently has more than sixty Indian casinos, including the nearly 200,000 square-foot Pechanga Resort and Casino in the southwestern city of Temecula.

“It’s much harder to get things built if it’s a new tribe, or one that is being restored to being a tribe, or they don’t have existing land to put something on and need to get that land, which has to be tribal land under federal law,” says Meister.

“When tribes need new land, they need to go through a complicated process,” he continues.

“In some cases, the new lands and trusts can be contested, and that involves a lot of time, too,” Meister adds.

A classic example of how complicated things can get comes with the move on the part of Fort Sill Apache tribe officials to get a casino built on land in southern New Mexico.

In 2014, the tribe won recognition as a New Mexican tribe, but remained stymied with the casino project. Earlier this year tribe announced it was suing the National Indian Gaming Commission for its refusal to reconsider an earlier decision prohibiting the Fort Sill Apache from building a casino in New Mexico.

The ongoing, long-running Fort Sill Apache push to build a New Mexico casino may seem extraordinary, but according to Meister, is not entirely unusual.

“Right now there is one application going back to 2005 that is still pending out of a list of twenty-three applications for new Indian casinos,” Meister says. “That will give you an idea of how long some of these projects can be dragged out.”

Despite such obstacles, there are today more Indian casinos than ever before, riding a sustained upward trend of growth that Meister says he does not think will end any time soon.

“We’re continuing to see tribes developing existing properties,” he says. “But we’re also seeing the continuing introduction of brand new properties.”



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