|By Sanford Nax, The Fresno Bee, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 22, 2003 - The area's newest hotel opens today in an enviable position -- almost sold out its first weekend.
Many of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino's 192 rooms are sold out, with comedian Jay Leno performing at the casino Sunday, said Derek Safley, hotel manager.
With a Gold Rush mountain-lodge feel, the five-story inn is the first resort-style hotel built in the Yosemite region since the 220-plus room Tenaya Hotel in 1990.
The Chukchansi hotel's room rate ranges from $99 to $499 per night, with the most expensive being two presidential suites that come equipped with four-poster beds made of timber, hot tubs, plasma-screen TVs, full bars and views of the Valley.
Hotel officials recommend that guests register weeks in advance because many of the deluxe rooms are likely to be reserved for the casino's top players.
The $150 million entertainment complex features an 1,800-slot casino, seven restaurants and the hotel.
"We block a certain amount of rooms for the casino players," said Safley, an 11-year veteran of the hotel industry who came to Chukchansi from the Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp.
The number of reserved rooms varies, depending on the play on the casino floor.
Russ Holcomb, executive director of Eastern Madera County Chamber of Commerce, said Chukchansi hotel executives say that as many as 80 percent of the rooms could be reserved for high rollers.
Representatives of other hotels in the foothills said they welcome the addition of the casino because it will bring more visitors to the area, some who might otherwise not have come.
Steve Welch, executive vice president of The Pines Resort at Bass Lake, said other inns could benefit from Chukchansi's overflow, although it is too early to know for sure.
"It's a different kind of draw. We're unsure of the total impact," Welch said.
"It's an added attraction to the area," said Lydia Bird, general manager of the 122-room Best Western Yosemite Gateway Inn about 11 miles from Coarsegold. Bird said many casino employees and visitors stay at her hotel.
Closer to the casino, Mike Trippett, who co-owns Cactus Jack's Longbranch Saloon on Highway 41 with his brother Calvin, said the casino has brought mixed blessings.
"A lot of money is being pumped into it," he said.
Sales at Cactus Jack's bar are up, but food business is down by 10 percent to 20 percent, which doesn't quite equal the increase in drink revenue.
Many of the area residents are sampling the restaurants at the casino, which has forced Trippett to offer more promotions at his business. His bar business has increased, Trippett said, because casino employees head to Cactus Jack's after work, which is about three miles away.
Trippett is not sure whether casino visitors will spend much money at other businesses along Highway 41, since they may just stay in the casino complex.
The new resort has affected local hotels and restaurants in other ways.
Many of Chukchansi's employees came from nearby businesses. In some cases, they accepted better jobs; in others, they cut their commutes.
The Pines Resort lost several employees, with most living closer to Chukchansi, Welch said. The Pines is about 40 minutes driving distance from the casino.
About 55 percent of the almost 1,400 employees who work at the casino and hotel are from Madera County, said Herman Perez, division administrator with the Workforce Development Office in Madera.
Other employees are from Fresno County and other places in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Some are from gaming towns in Nevada and Louisiana, Perez said.
This summer has been excellent in the Yosemite area, local hoteliers say.
Dan Carter, executive director of Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, said more people vacationed closer to home this year, and tourism officials hope the arrival of Chukchansi continues the trend.
Welch said he hopes the addition of the casino will boost business in the region during the slower winter months.
"I think it will function as an additional thing for tourists coming here and bring in a demographic that hasn't come here before," Carter said.
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(c) 2003, The Fresno Bee, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.