Casino En­ter­tain­ment

In­dian gam­ing is a good bet for Cal­i­for­nia, reser­va­tions

Variety - - Contents - Story by ROY TRAKIN

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­dian Gam­ing Com­mis­sion, rev­enue from tribal casi­nos has grown from $5.4 bil­lion in 1995 to $32.4 bil­lion last year, rep­re­sent­ing a rise of 600%. The In­dian Gam­ing Reg­u­la­tory Act was signed into law by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan in 1988 af­ter the Supreme Court ruled to over­turn ex­ist­ing laws on gam­ing and gam­bling on U.S. In­dian reser­va­tions in the case of Cal­i­for­nia vs. Cabazon Band of Mis­sion In­di­ans. Even af­ter that, it took a good 10 years, un­til 1998, that Cal­i­for­nia passed Propo­si­tion 5, al­low­ing tribal casi­nos to of­fer more than just bingo and games of chance by clear­ing the way for slot ma­chines.

“Ab­so­lutely trans­for­ma­tive,” says Vic­tor Rocha, a mem­ber of the Pechanga tribe, about the rul­ing. Rocha a gui­tarist who pub­lishes ag­gre­gat­ing sto­ries on tribal gam­ing, also serves as the con­fer­ence chair for the Na­tional In­dian Gam­ing Assn., or­ga­niz­ing the con­fab’s pan­els. “It pulled my fam­ily out of poverty by tak­ing a peo­ple that has had gen­er­a­tional trauma for years and given them the re­sources to make a life. Gam­ing has al­lowed us to send our kids to col­lege, our broth­ers and sis­ters to men­tal health fa­cil­i­ties and drug re­habs. It’s about re­pair­ing the dam­age.”

Tribal gam­ing casi­nos are the only places out­side Ne­vada and At­lantic City, N.J., that al­low gam­bling, and their suc­cess has made such Cal­i­for­nia des­ti­na­tions as Pechanga Re­sort & Casino in Te­mec­ula, Agua Caliente Casino Re­sort Spa in Ran­cho Mi­rage and Thun­der Val­ley Casino Re­sort out­side Sacra­mento com­pet­i­tive with the best of Las Ve­gas.

Agua Caliente di­rec­tor of en­ter­tain­ment Dan Pfer­schy points to his 2,200- ca­pac­ity the Show, which opened in 2009 with a Billy Joel con­cert, as a jewel in the area, now book­ing the likes of Van Mor­ri­son, Sting and Brad Pais­ley in an in­ti­mate venue.

“We’re try­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves and take it up a notch with high- cal­iber book­ings,” says Pfer­schy, whose goal is to at least earn back the artist’s fee with a per­for­mance, if not a profit cen­ter at some point in the fu­ture.

Pechanga Re­sort & Casino, whose north­ern San Diego lo­ca­tion at­tracts vis­i­tors from both Los An­ge­les and Or­ange coun­ties (as do Pala Casino Spa and Re­sort and San Manuel Casino) ear­lier this year opened its Pechanga Pav­il­ion. The 3,200-seat, 42,000-sq.-ft. venue has hosted Adam San­dler and Pit­bull. Mean­while its 1,245- ca­pac­ity Pechanga Show­room The­ater has fea­tured ev­ery­one from Bob Dy­lan to Skid Row and the Back­street Boys.

“We try to cater to our core au­di­ence, which is be­tween 45 and 65,” says Pechanga en­ter­tain­ment man­ager Brian Cro­nen­wett. “We get feed­back from our guests, the tribal board and ex­ec­u­tive staff for sug­ges-

tions, and then we go out and try to book them.”

Kell Hous­ton is a tal­ent buyer for tribal gam­ing casi­nos who runs his own Hous­ton Prods. com­pany head­quar­tered in Las Ve­gas, with of­fices in Min­neapo­lis and Seat­tle. Hous­ton’s booked acts into Pechanga, Pala, Agua Caliente, Morongo, Chu­mash, Thun­der Val­ley and Ea­gle Moun­tain, among oth­ers.

“Tribal gam­ing is a very elu­sive kind of fish,” he says. “They might not be ex­pe­ri­enced or busi­ness-savvy, but they’re get­ting bet­ter, bring­ing in ex­pert out­side man­age­ment. But work­ing with them is like deal­ing with in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ments. Each one is a sov­er­eign na­tion with its own rules, reg­u­la­tions and pro­to­col they ad­here to.”

Doug El­mets runs his own Sacra­mento-based pub­lic re­la­tions com­pany, which han­dles Thun­der Val­ley, among other tribal gam­ing clients. “Ev­ery sin­gle casino, tribal coun­cil and mem­ber are in­ti­mately in­volved in op­er­a­tional de­ci­sions,” he says. “They have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to their mem­bers, their em­ploy­ees, as well as com­ply­ing with the many pro­vi­sions that re­quire their in­ti­mate en­gage­ment and in­volve­ment.”

For Amer­i­can In­di­ans in­clud­ing Rocha, these aren’t con­ces­sions, but rights be­ing re­stored and long-bro­ken treaties up­held.

“Our land and rights were stolen, and we’re just try­ing to get them back. Gam­ing has pro­vided tribes with re­sources un­til any­thing we’ve ever had be­fore. The U.S. govern­ment didn’t re­ally ex­pect the tribes to be­come this suc­cess­ful. The last thing this coun­try wants is for the Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes to stand up and claim what’s theirs — land, wa­ter, air, min­er­als.”

With In­dian gam­ing casi­nos com­ing into their own, El­mets claims it’s a win­win for ev­ery­one in­volved. “They’re not only gen­er­at­ing rev­enue for the tribes, but also for lo­cal eco­nom­ics and lo­cal govern­ment, while em­ploy­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands across the state.”

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