WEEKLY FEATURE: Diamond or Coal?

The controversial Desert Diamond Casino near Glendale, Arizona, opened December 20. The Tohono O’odham Nation first proposed the casino in 2009, but local, state and federal opposition tried to block it at every turn. The Tucson-based Tohono O’odham Nation prevailed, however, and the first week was a clear success. Members of the tribe cut the ribbon late last month.

The 0 million Desert Diamond Casino of the Tohono O’odham Nation near Glendale, Arizona opened to large crowds on December 20.

Some members of the crowds camped all night in front of the casino so that they could be the first inside. Some held the casino equivalent of tailgate parties as they waited to get in.

The opening was preceded by two and a half hours of speeches and the raising of the U.S. and Arizona flags by veterans from the tribe.

The controversial casino opened with 1,089 Class II slots, but not with any Class III games since Arizona Department of Gaming state still has not certified its games. The department of Gaming opposes the casino due to “fraud perpetuated by (the tribe) upon the state, Arizona gaming tribes and the state’s voters.”

The tribe and the state are still in federal court battling over this issue.

The casino will also open without a liquor license, which the state is still withholding.

Tribal Chairman Edward D. Manuel called the opening “a great day,” and added, “We are confident that this facility will be an enormous success for the region, and we are eager to keep moving forward. Obviously, once we succeed in the litigation with the state, we will work to implement Class III.”

He added, “We didn’t know we were going to have so many challenges, so many setbacks, so many troubles. But I’m so glad the council never wavered, the chair and vice chair never wavered, the enterprise and board never wavered. They continued forward on for the dream.”

The state does not dispute that the tribe can operate Class II, bingo-related games at its casino, but not Las Vegas style gaming. That means that it can’t operate poker or blackjack tables or roulette.

But the games being offered were popular enough. “One of the main messages is that you will most likely find your favorite game theme here,” said Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise Director of Public Relations Treena Parvello. “For the true gamer, our goal was to ensure we had the full experience with the space we had available.”

Some of the games offered are Wheel of Fortune, Jumpin’ Jalapenos, 5 Frogs, Buffalo Thunder and 88 Fortunes, the latter being the top earner at most casinos due to its novelty, newness and that the progressives hit a lot.

Although smoking is allowed, state-of-the-art air conditioners whip it away very quickly.

Governor Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich argue that the tribe promised in 2002 not to build a casino near Phoenix as part of the gaming compact that voters approved that year.

In 2013 a federal judge ruled that the language of the compact allowed the tribe to build a casino, whether or not it promised voters otherwise. The tribe has won nearly 20 court decisions since 2009 when it announced it was building a casino near Glendale.

Although state officials and the local Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities continue to oppose the casino, five local cities have endorsed it, including Glendale, Peoria, Tolleson, Surprise, and El Mirage.

The fact that the casino is now open won’t discourage the Gila River community, according to Governor Roe Lewis, who said in a statement, “Sadly, the Nation has built its casino on a foundation of broken promises and fraud.” He added, “The voters of Arizona were promised gaming would remain on traditional tribal lands, never encroaching on neighborhoods, near schools and residences. It’s a sad day to see those promises broken. But the fight for honesty and justice will absolutely continue.”

Said Manuel, “It will make money not only for us but the communities here. Glendale and the surrounding communities have been supportive because they know that it will create employment and entice other development to come in.”

Future plans for the 135 acres include a permanent 440,000 square foot casino and a 400-room hotel. The current building, which devotes some of its space to administrative offices and infrastructure, will be devoted entirely to that when phase 2 buildings are erected.

When build out is complete the casino will employ an estimated 3,000 workers. The tribe claims it will impact the local economy at a rate of about $300 million annually.

One of those who attended the opening was Rep. Raul Grijalva, who successfully opposed an attempt by some members of Congress to pass a bill that would have kept the casino from opening. Other VIPs included members of the local board of supervisors and elected officials from surrounding cities.

Polls show that 58 percent of those surveyed in Maricopa County supported the opening of the casino, although the state’s two U.S. Senators and several representatives tried to scuttle its opening, including Reps. Trent Franks, Paul Gosar, David Schweikert, Matt Salmon, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Bob Moore, of the polling firm of Moore Information, commented, “While many voters are unaware or remain undecided on the casino and related issues, the clear majority among those who have an opinion is to allow the West Valley casino to open without congressional interference.”

The city of Glendale, which once vociferously opposed the casino’s opening, later dropped its lawsuit after reaching an agreement where the tribe pays the city $26 million over the next two decades.

Franks vows to continue to fight for his bill. Last week he told the Arizona Republic: “Our bill simply would require that the promises made at that time would be kept until there was a new compact discussion. People of Arizona voted on the compact. They voted to allow casino gambling on the reservations.”