THE BIG GAMBLE
by Paul Ross
|In Indian country New Mexico, “res” is no longer just short hand for reservation. Now it means resorts in a high-stakes gamble to attract tourists and dollars. The headlong race began with modest Quonset hut slot farms and then escalated to full-blown “Vegas-style” casinos, hotels, and their necessary “support services” (gas stations, eateries, and shops). It’s currently ratcheting-up another notch as local Pueblos co-venture with multi-national corporations to open world-class resorts. As unlikely as the pairing appears to be on the surface, the multis are demonstrating remarkable flexibility both in their tightly-proscribed operational practices as well as in the touchy arena of cultural sensitivity. Tribal elders have a say in everything from day-to-day procedures to décor, and allowances are made for indigenous hotel staff to take time off to participate in ceremonial activities. Museums and cultural centers are often included in the initial construction plans as an educational point of contact for visitors but, this time, it’s not the Fred Harvey “natives under glass” presentation but rather voices from the inside who are doing the talking. The new ventures are accomplishing more than answering the accusation that Native Americans are victimizing the community with “sin services” such as gaming and discount tobacco sales. Benefits to tribal members include new health, senior, and educational centers as well as infra-structure improvements that were never delivered under IHS, BIA, or Depart of Transportation management.
If not the application of revenue, certainly it’s the specter of casino profits that have triggered on- going frictions between 11 of the sovereign nations and the taxation arm of the encompassing government in which those nations reside. Ratification of contracts and arguments over percentages of the house take have resulted in several acrimonious stand-offs; the most infamous of which was when Pojoaque Pueblo Governor Jake Viarrial threatened to shut down the main traffic artery through the state.
An estimated $1 billion is generated annually by New Mexico Native Gaming. That kind of money attracts competition and cooperation. So far, corporations such as Hyatt, Best Western, Phillips 66 and several out-of-state banks have anted-up millions to play. With the encouragement and invitation of several Pueblos, eyes as far away as Asia and Europe are watching and planning their next moves.
With all this capital, it’s pretty astounding to think that these indigenous American enterprises began only 26 years ago. When the Mescalero Apaches opened Inn of the Mountain Gods (New Mexico’s first resort complex) doubts were raised about the ability of inexperienced locals to handle the demands of hostelry, restauranteurship, golf, skiing, fishing, boating, and a full-blown casino. After all, other Indian gaming groups had been plagued with political battles, violent inter-tribal confrontations, corruption, and even infiltration by the mob. But, a quarter-century later, the Mountain Gods still reign. With neighboring Ruidoso Downs horse track and Winter sports, the area draws heavily from neighboring Texas. The outlook is for continued growth.
Pueblo involvement began timidly with forays into bingo, the slots, and then card games. The big explosion came around 1987 with Class III gaming. Just as the Pueblos themselves sprang up along the course of the Rio Grande, casinos seem to follow I-25. In the one-hour drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, you’re never more than 20 minutes from a game of chance. (Less, if you count the lottery tickets hawked at every gas station, restaurant, and convenience store.) The public’s appetite for gambling is greater than first predicted and the income from casinos fuels most of the other native enterprises, both public and private. This, in turn, leads to a sort-of upward spin cycle of wealth for -as nations within a nation– the Pueblos make money with money by levying their own taxes. Every business and customer on native lands is contributing to this new economic powerbase with each dollar spent on gas, food, gaming, entertainments, and lodging. Lorentino Lalio, the Indian Tourism Director at the NM Department of Tourism, predicts that Native- American-owned enterprises “will have a 50% impact on the state within 2 years. (And that, at some point in the future, they will gain) “control.” He shrugs off charges of unfair competition, citing the example of Pueblo people having to drive “15 miles to a gas station -until we built our own.” Lalio adds that the main iconic attraction of New Mexico has always been the Indian who, until recently, has had little direct benefit from tourism.
As for his prognostications of a ceiling on success, Lalio muses about a “staggered limit” brought on by competing southwestern states vying for the same audience by using similar marketing. But that’s in the future -for which he is prepared.
At the present time, most of the monies generated are from within the state, but a trend indicates that more and more visitors from Texas and Mexico. Surprisingly, Lalio has fielded queries from international interests (both tourism and business visitors) from as far away as Russia, China, and Africa.
If indigenous culture is the main attraction, isn’t it also at risk from the influx of tourists and money? Lalio feels that native traditions are strong and that the dangers are easily outweighed by “economic progress.” Nevertheless, he’s keeping a watchful eye on the Navajo nation in Arizona, where B&Bs are au courant.
In the U.S., golf appears to be the lure for well-healed sports enthusiasts in the hope that they will: a) become repeat customers; b) bring their families along with them, and, most important; c) engender convention bookings. Golf courses are already located on or will be at the following Pueblos: Mescalero, Isleta, Sandia, Pojoaque and Santa Ana. The latter two will have two courses each. Santa Ana’s alone is a rumored $4.5 million part of their massive Tamaya Resort.
Tamaya is the biggest gamble of all and the one that everyone is monitoring. 350 suites and rooms, 20,000 square feet of convention/meeting space, 5 dining areas, a 16,000 square foot full-service spa, 3 outdoor pools, and the championship 18-hole golf course are some of the amenities in this “We built it! Now will they come?” dream. Tamaya is a resort destination in the mode of what’s previously only be available in Las Vegas, Palm Springs or Scottsdale. The idea is self-containment: every- thing in one place, so the guest needn’t go outside the complex for anything. And it is all here: fine dining (The Corn Maiden restaurant, the Hyatt Corporation’s first venture into rotisserie cuisine), sports (tennis, swimming, golf, hiking, horseback riding), soft adventure (hot air ballooning above the Rio Grande valley), health and fitness (their spa has a gym, 14 private and 2 couples treatment rooms, and offers a variety of massages ranging from Japanese shiatsu to Pueblo- inspired “dry brush”). There’s even Native culture represented by dance, story-telling, and traditional horno bread, freshly-baked every morning by an authentic Santa Anan in the hotel’s central courtyard.
According to contemporary American folklore, a mobster had a fantasy of a pleasure oasis in the desert. For that, he was killed. But Bugsy Siegel’s dream became world-renowned Las Vegas, Nevada. Now New Mexico is gambling BIG on a collective vision. The questions are will there be a winner this time? And, if so, WHO?
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