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Once a Bingo Hall, the Tohono O'odham Nation Finishing the
 $120 million Desert Diamond Casino & Hotel, Tuscon, Arizona

By Levi J. Long, The Arizona Daily Star, TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Mar. 8, 2007 - The construction project at East Los Reales Road and South Nogales Highway is a far cry from the renovation project the Tohono O'odham Nation undertook there two decades ago.

What started in 1984 with a bingo hall inside a white, oblong tent run by the O'odham nation has morphed into a $120 million casino-hotel project, scheduled to open this fall.

The new hotel and casino also fall into a larger state-wide trend, with at least six casino-hotels now open in Arizona.

"This is a whole new opportunity," said Treena Parvello, marketing director for Desert Diamond Casinos. "We're very excited about this project. It's a way to make more revenue for the Nation with gaming, a hotel and food and beverage operations. Ultimately this is here for the Nation."

Under construction since last April, the 323,000-square-foot casino-hotel complex is taking shape at 7350 S. Nogales Highway, just west of where the current casino is located. The foundation is finished, steel framing is up and the exterior walls are going up as well.

Once the new one is completed, the old casino will be torn down, making way for a parking lot.

About 40 percent of the new project is complete, said Keith Dougherty, a project manager with Kitchell Contractors, the Phoenix-based firm hired to build the project.

When complete, the project will include a 165,000-square-foot casino, a 150,000-square-foot hotel and an 8,000-square-foot conference center, he said.

"This is a significant change from our current casino," Parvello said during a Wednesday tour of the site.

Started with Papago Bingo

When the O'odham Nation ventured out on its first gaming operation, it started 23 years ago with Papago Bingo.

After a 1993 gaming compact was approved between Arizona and tribes, the O'odham renovated a warehouse and a tent-like concrete structure into its first casino.

Looking to expand its gaming operations, the Nation built a second Desert Diamond Casino along Interstate 19 at Pima Mine Road in 2001.

The O'odham Nation now operates three casinos, including the Golden Ha:san Casino near Why, about 120 miles west of Tucson.

Now the tribe is looking toward the future with its new casino and 150-room hotel, the first such complex to open in Southern Arizona.

The four-story, two-tower hotel is joined to the new casino through a conference center and banquet hall.

Hotel amenities

Rooms and suites are to feature 32-inch, flat-screen TVs and complimentary high-speed and wireless Internet access.

Other features of the hotel include a business center, a fitness area and spa, a lounge and coffee bar, and an outdoor pool being built behind the lobby.

Casino officials expect to add 200 jobs when the project opens.

The O'odham currently employ about 1,200 workers at the tribe's three casinos.

Other tribes around the state have already added hotels to their casino operations as part of a trend to boost revenues.

A half dozen Indian-operated casino-hotels are already open around the state, said Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, based in Phoenix.

Those facilities often feature golf courses, entertainment venues and restaurants and conference centers to give people more options while at the casinos, she said.

With a limited number of slot machines designated per casino, more tribes are looking at other ways to market their operations, she said.

Casino Arizona, owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, is completing its final design phase for a casino-resort, but details on that project haven't been finalized.

"The addition of a resort is a significant step for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community," said Ramon Martinez, sales and marketing manager for Casino Arizona. "Research shows that the Phoenix market is primed to withstand a project of this nature, and we are excited to introduce to Arizona yet another world-class entertainment destination."

Destination resorts

Luxury accommodations at casinos are also a part of the trend at the Wild Horse Pass Casino, owned by the Gila River Indian Community. The 500-room Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is on its reservation near Chandler.

That AAA four-diamond resort features two 18-hole golf courses and a 17,500-square-foot spa along with four pools, waterfalls and a 111-foot water slide on its property, according to the resort's Web site.

Casinos have always marketed themselves to locals in their communities, Morago said.

"Now tribes are creating themselves as destination resorts," she said.

One way casinos reach beyond their market is with shuttles and buses that offer free rides to casinos.

About 120 miles north of Tucson, the Apache Gold Casino Resort on the San Carlos Reservation operates a 142-room Best Western Hotel, enticing Tucsonans to jump on complimentary shuttles for overnight stays.

"It's a common practice" among casinos, said Margie Franklin, the casino's tour and travel coordinator.

"There continues to be high demand in Tucson," she said. "Many of our guests come from around the region."

--The new casino at East Los Reales Road and South Nogales Highway will house 998 slot machines, a 500-seat bingo hall, a 35-seat keno area, 25 poker tables and 22 blackjack tables. A smoke-free gaming area is also part of the new casino's plans.

--Five full-service bars, a 250-seat buffet, a high-end steakhouse, a fast-food eatery and a retail shop will also be in the casino.

--"The Monsoon," a 4,240-square-foot nightclub is being built inside the casino and will have an entertainment stage within the 200-seat venue.

--Contact reporter Levi J. Long at 573-4179 or llong@azstarnet.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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