The Red Cliff Ojibwe Triple Their Hospitality with New Resort-Casino

Konnie LeMay
2/11/12

Legendary Waters’ marketing manager delights in ticking off the activities on the property or not far outside the door in Red Cliff, Wisconsin.

“Hiking, sailing, mountain biking, sea kayaking, trail running, golfing, camping, fishing, scuba diving over shipwrecks. Oh, and a casino,” Rachael Lamkin listed. Now that it's winter, she adds snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, ice fishing (yes, some do this for fun) and snowshoeing. And a casino.

“Oh, and a casino” is a refrain you’ll hear often from the managers of the new $30 million resort and casino owned and operated by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The 78,000-square-foot gaming-convention center-restaurant-hotel complex sits just 150 feet from the shores of the majestic Lake Superior. It is adjacent to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and the spectacular views are not hidden even from those enjoying the slots and table games – this casino has windows.

“We did that to allow our patrons to see the beauty that’s surrounding the casino,” says Legendary Waters Manager Jeff Gordon. “It’s important for our customers to come here for all of the amenities and, oh, by the way, there is gaming here.”

Gordon, a member of the Red Cliff Band, returned home to manage the new complex, which nearly triples the space from the band’s former gaming-restaurant operation, Isle Vista Casino. He had worked at the bingo casino in Milwaukee run by the Forest County Potawatomi.

“You can’t beat home; it’s where you want to be,” he said. Gordon hopes to persuade others that his home along the northern edge of the Bayfield Peninsula is where they want to come and spend time.

Nestled along the shore and in the north woods, Legendary Waters can take full advantage of its location, with an adjacent campground and a 47-slip marina. Sail and power boaters dock for only $20 a day. “Come in, dock your boat, have dinner, maybe play the slots for awhile, peek at the gift shop and go out on the lake without missing a beat,” Lamkin said. The Wii-Kway-Ong restaurant serves local fare, like fresh-caught whitefish, and boaters could book a night in the 47-room hotel.

Legendary Waters was always intended as “destination” resort; it’s not really on the way to anywhere else. In its marketing material, its billed as “just three miles north of Bayfield,” a tiny town of 440. About 940 people reside within the 1-mile-wide by 14-mile-long Red Cliff reservation.

“We are on the road to nowhere – if you are coming to Bayfield, you are coming to Bayfield,” says Cari Obst, executive director of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau. “It is clearly a destination.”

Bayfield, once called “the best little town in the Midwest” by the Chicago Tribune, has long history of tourism generally revolving around summer months. With the opening of Legendary Waters up the road in Red Cliff, Obst foresees another tool to attract people all year and to encourage organizations to bring onsite conferences north.

“We feel 100 percent confident that it’s a wonderful attribute to our area,” she said. “It’s an all win situation. We didn’t have any place that could sleep a conference group.”

A moveable performance stage can be used with a dance floor, or the space can be converted for banquets, seating about 350 guests. Set stadium-style it seats nearly 500. The resort officially opened in August.

“We’re looking at all the angles we can to attract people in the winter time,” said Gordon. The property links to snowmobile and cross-country trails. Snowmobilers can use the showers and lockers near the hotel entrance and there is an indoor/outdoor hot tub for hotel guests. There’s also a small ski hill near Bayfield.

Occupancy at the hotel has been about 50 percent during the week and about 90 percent on weekends. “Repeat business is really what we thrive on,” Lamkin said.

Red Cliff is relatively late in adding a hotel to its gaming operations. That is a plus, she believes. “Being one of the last tribes in Wisconsin to build a facility like this, it was somewhat of an advantage. We could take the time and plan the building and the property and the layout to recognize what people want and what people don’t want.”

That is one reason the gaming, while critical to the profits, has been de-emphasized in marketing. As a small, remote band, Red Cliff struggled to start small with its casino business in the 1970s and to grow it. A loan from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux in Minnesota helped to finance the new structure.

“I think right now people are excited,” Gordon said. “I think it’s a little overwhelming – in Red Cliff we have a hotel casino … with a pool. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, energy.”

There’s enthusiasm, too, for the potential work during peak seasons: about 200 full- and part-time jobs, double the old casino’s employment. In the gift shop, 80 percent of the products are locally made.

The long history of the band is also written on the walls. “When you walk into our casino floor, you see the heritage wall. It is essentially the history of Red Cliff. There are clothing, articles, photographs, the story of the struggle that the Red Cliff tribe has gone through,” said Lamkin. And there another point of pride for the new operation.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re the only casino in the state of Wisconsin that’s certified green,” Gordon said.

Among the “green” aspects are use of bio-degradable solvents in the laundry, installation of auto-sensor lights to reduce electricity use and auto sensors for toilets and faucets to reduce water use. Holding ponds on either side of the building trap run-off from the parking lot and protect the lake. And its  www.legendarywaters.com is generated on 100 percent wind-powered web servers.

Ultimately, the investment in “green” operations, promotion of activities on and near the site and a spectacular location along a lake with 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water all contributes to making Legendary Waters a destination visit, Lamkin said. “Everything that we have around us is an amenity.”

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