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The Biggest, Most Expensive Resort and Casino Ever Built in New Mexico, the Hilton Santa Fe Golf Resort
 & Spa at Buffalo Thunder, A High-stakes Venture for the Pojoaqe Pueblo
By Kate Nash, The Santa Fe New MexicanMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 3, 2008 - POJOAQUE -- After spending more than two hours meandering halls loaded with Native American artwork , rooms full of custom furniture, a spa, a casino and three restaurants at the soon-to-open Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, Pojoaque Gov. George Rivera stops. For a moment, he is lost amid the swank of the hotel's fifth floor.

"I need to figure out where we are at," he says, his voice trailing off down a hallway with padded carpet and locally made sconces.

"So this will go only to the second floor. This one will take us to the first floor. So we've got to go this way," he thinks out loud during a tour for a reporter.

Rivera starts walking again.

For an instant, though, Rivera -- and in many ways his pueblo of 389 people -- is paused between a hardscrabble past and a luxurious future.

As Rivera heads down four flights of stairs in the sprawling hotel, Pojoaque is transitioning between a pueblo that started its gaming business in a tiny Northern New Mexico shack and a high style, Las Vegas-quality casino. It's emerging from its place as the state's second-smallest pueblo and stepping into its role as host for the state's biggest, most expensive resort and casino.

And Rivera, 44, isn't stopping for long, heading to the grand lobby, Blackberry humming, his pueblo's destiny in hand.

Starting from scratch

Construction on the complex, set to finish when the 80-acre resort opens Aug. 12, took 18 months.

Planning took 15 years.

And getting the pueblo to its current size took centuries -- something that almost didn't happen.

The pueblo, which dates back to 1000 A.D., was almost nonexistent by the 1800s. Located in the Pojoaque Valley on what is now U.S. 84/285 just 15 miles north of Santa Fe, it was an unorganized lot, with most members having moved to other areas. Rivera's great-grandfather, Jose Antonio Tapia, was among the last to leave, in his case to Colorado in 1915.

By 1932, though, Tapia was back and helped re-establish the pueblo under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. At that point, Pojoaque had just a dozen members in the area.

Two nearby pueblos -- Jacona and Cuyamungue -- didn't survive the encroachment by others, the spread of disease, the lack of land that could be irrigated.

So why did Pojoaque make it where others didn't? How has it now been able to build something others can only dream of?

Rivera said the answer to both questions has to do with when things happened. "It was probably timing," he said of his pueblo's early survival. "My great-grandfather came back with his kids, and they took up in the old pueblo, the dilapidated, adobe houses, and just started from scratch."

And as the pueblo started the casino project from scratch, it also was blessed with the luck of the calendar, Rivera said. The project began before construction costs began to soar, before the nation's economy took a turn and while good rates for the financing were still available.

"It's all perfect timing: We signed the compacts, cleared up any legal issues that we had with the state and went out and the financing was available," he said.

Under the compacts, pueblos with gaming were required to pay a percentage of their net slot-machine revenue to the state. Pojoaque wouldn't sign, and that led to legal and political fights with then-Gov. Gary Johnson and then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid. The compacts also put the pueblo crosswise at one point with Gov. Bill Richardson, who three years ago vetoed $540,000 in capital outlay money for the pueblo because it hadn't paid gaming revenues to the state.

Eventually, Pojoaque in 2005 agreed to pay $24 million in back payments from its Cities of Gold Casino to settle the lawsuit filed by Madrid. "I felt like we could have won that case," Rivera said, standing in the resort's junior ballroom, giant rolls of new carpet around him. "The unfortunate part about winning that case is it would have upset all the compacts in state. ... It was just time to move on."

Catering to the world

With obstacles behind them, the pueblo is focused on finishing the new casino and promoting the new resort. "It's real satisfying to bring the quality of economic development to this area that I've always thought could and should be here," Rivera said.

That economic development means one sorely needed thing for the area: employment. The project will create between 650 and 700 jobs in a place where opportunities for work are few, in an area where the median household income is about $30,000 and about 18 percent lived below the poverty line in 2000.

The resort will also create a place where travelers from around the globe can relax, play golf, catch a show and gamble -- a place so grand that guests will need a map of the complex.

Richard Ross, Hilton's director of sales and marketing for the resort, said he hopes those guests come from all over the world. "The resort will cater to a very broad base of clientele," he said in an e-mail. "Obviously, we hope to attract a very strong local following though our gaming, food and beverage, entertainment, spa and golf offerings. Gaming will also be very attractive to a regional audience that stretches east into Texas, north into Colorado and west into Arizona. With the power of the Hilton brand behind Buffalo Thunder, we will also have global appeal."

Ross said the company expects the resort will be a popular destination, even with the economy as it is right now. "We anticipate the resort to be very well received given its many uniquenesses and Santa Fe's established reputation as a world-class destination," he said.

Hilton will manage the resort and handle bookings; the pueblo will run the casino.

While the pueblo and Hilton are optimistic about the future, Guy Clark of the New Mexico Coalition Against Gambling isn't so sure. "You just wonder if we've hit the saturation point in Northern New Mexico with all the casinos we've got along the strip there," he said, referring to casinos along 84/285 to the north of Santa Fe.

"All across the country, casinos are getting hit with hard times, and the thought of building a mega-casino where it's already surrounded with casinos ... seems wildly optimistic," he said.

Casino revenue figures from the Gaming Control Board show Pojoaque had a net win of $6.3 million in the first quarter of this year, compared to $6 million in the first quarter of last year. The net win is the amount gambled on machines minus the amount paid in cash and noncash prizes and state and tribal fees paid.

Rivera said he'd like to see the economy improve but isn't sweating current conditions. "Certainly we want it to get better, but we're comfortable, No. 1, that things will get better and that what we offer here is so unique, it will hold its own in tough economic times," he said.

As for the other places to gamble in Northern New Mexico, Rivera said he expects those venues to survive. "I think they will be all right because they are in an industry that seems to be weathering the times and (as) one has opened up, the others have weathered the competition."

The impact of his project on other pueblos is just one thing Rivera, governor since 2004 and lieutenant governor from 1992 until then, has to think about these days. He's been wrapped up in the details of the casino project as he trained for a marathon this weekend.

At one point in the resort tour, Rivera decided how high a painting in a hallway should be hung and noted that a worker outside near the pool was digging a hole for a tree in an area that was supposed to be for something else.

Rivera apparently thinks about the smallest details -- and the largest, including who might stay in the hotel one day and how they will be accommodated. "If you had the prince of Saudi Arabia and he wanted the entire fifth floor, he could take the entire fifth floor," Rivera said, stretching his arms out in both directions down the fifth-floor hallway.

On that floor, inside the Governor's Suite -- on the second level of the 2,500-square-foot room, to be exact -- Rivera stops and looks out at the view. It might be one of the best in the Pojoaque Valley, from what is undoubtedly the nicest room. It's also the most expensive, at $5,000 a night. "Nice view, huh?" he says. "You can see the ski basin, the (Santa Fe) Baldy, the golf course, the wedding chapel."

While out-of-town guests might need time to orient themselves to Northern New Mexico's beauty, Rivera, who grew up just two miles from the complex, doesn't.

No, Rivera isn't lost, like he was for a moment in the hallway. He knows exactly where he is heading.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Santa Fe New Mexican

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