Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

February 23, 2012

Casinos: Are there too many?

TAHLEQUAH — As the number of tribal casinos has mushroomed across Oklahoma, many residents have wondered when they will reach their saturation point.

Others have expressed concern that the increased access to casinos has created more gambling addicts, with a destructive effect on these people, their families, and their finances.

“I think the market has proved itself, kind of like in ‘Field of Dreams’ — if you build it, they will come,” said Edwin Marshall, chief of staff for the Muscogee Creek Nation, which operates 11 casinos.

As far as Marshall knows, no casinos in Oklahoma have shut down for lack of patrons.

Plans for expansion are under way at some of the Creek casinos, as well as several Cherokee Nation-owned sites.

“There continues to be room for investment in gaming,” said David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses. “Those facilities that continue to offer a high level of customer service, the best amenities and a fun, safe atmosphere will continue to thrive. These are the qualities that separate Cherokee Casinos from other gaming operations.”

Construction of the new Tahlequah Cherokee Casino, planned for the intersection of U.S. 62 and State Highway 82 south of town, has been put on hold until after CNB seats several new members on its board, Stewart said. However, work is in progress at these Cherokee Casino sites:

• Site work for the new Cherokee Casino Fort Gibson began last June. The new facility, four times larger, will employ nearly 190 people, about double the current work force. The 27,500-square-foot casino will house 500 electronic games.

• Construction to triple the size of Cherokee Casino Ramona began last summer. Nearly 200 people will be employed when it opens in 2012. The current casino is a modular, 11,500-square-foot building with 211 electronic games, a restaurant, and a bar. The new permanent building will be 31,000 square feet, with a restaurant, bar, entertainment space and 500 electronic games.

• At the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, construction began in November on a third hotel tower. It will add 100 suites and more than 55,000 square feet of entertainment and gaming space. The $52 million project will be completed this year.

The parking lot is usually full at the Keetoowah Cherokee Casino in Tahlequah. Assistant Chief Charles Locust said business is good, and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of expanding Keetoowah casino facilities.

“Every year, our sales continue to grow. We’ve never had a year where our sales have declined,” he said. “We’re at a place where we’ve got so much potential for growth in the tribe. We have the potential to really take off.”

Marshall said several Muscogee Creek Nation casinos are undergoing renovation and updating.

“Perhaps the most notable project planned in the near future is the addition of a conference hotel and additional venues at the Mackey Sand Bar [Tulsa River Spirit Casino],” he said.

Representatives of the three tribes interviewed say they provide help for guests who have compulsive gambling problems. As with any addiction, a person must first realize he or she is addicted, and that the addiction has become a problem in his or her life.

“We’re here to provide fun and safe entertainment options for our guests. At the same time, we strive to be a socially responsible community partner,” Stewart said. “Although a very small percentage of the population suffers from problem gambling, we take it very seriously. Our measures go above and beyond what is required by Oklahoma law, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

The Cherokee Nation created a self-exclusion program, with a Play Smart program readily available to guests and noted on all marketing materials. Employees receive training to guide guests who may have gaming problems so they may find the information they need to get help.

All guests can self-exclude for one year, five years or permanently. The person’s information and photo are collected. Before each shift, security personnel review photos of excluded guests and others. When excluded guests return, they are escorted off the property. If they do get in and win any money, those winnings are forfeited. That money goes to fund Cherokee Nation behavioral health programs and the Play Smart program, which educates the public on problem gambling.

Rod Fourkiller, general manager of the Keetoowah Cherokee Casino, said his facility also has a self-exclusion policy.Two or three people each month seek to exclude themselves from the premises because they realize they have a problem.

“It happens more often than most people realize,” he said. “We can refer them to Gamblers Anonymous, or we can refer them to a counseling service. They can come to any of our staff. If they realize they have a problem, they can come to us.”

The Muscogee Creek Nation makes Gamblers Anonymous resource material available to patrons at all of its gaming facilities. Gamblers Anonymous is an independent entity, Marshall noted.

Each program is available to people who believe they have gambling problems, regardless of tribal citizenship.      

All the tribes have security personnel at their casinos, and are able to call on the services of marshals or lighthorse officers as needed.

With 92 casinos currently operated by 34 tribes in Oklahoma, the market has yet to determine how many casinos are too many.

Derek Campbell, head of the gaming division in the Oklahoma State Office of Finance, said the number of new casinos has begun to slow down.

“I think we saw our big boom the past few years,” he said. “I think every tribe that can compact has compacted at this point.”

None of the casinos have closed, and they have provided financial impact to state government. In 2011, the state received $122 million in casino fees.

Of that amount, the first $250,000 goes to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, then 88 percent goes to education. The last 12 percent is put into the state’s general fund.

Campbell expects only one or two new casinos a year to open in Oklahoma in the foreseeable future.

Locust said he doesn’t know when the growth in casinos will end.

“I think there’s a saturation point. I don’t know what that level is,” he said.

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