Tribes in Western Washington Are Bullish on the State's Economy
Getting a read on the state of Washington’s economic health can be tricky right now. The unemployment rate hovers at above eight percent. Mid-year job growth slowed after a strong start at the beginning of the year. Manufacturing is growing but at a reduced rate.
Still, some local tribal governments are bullish on the state’s economy. Several major economic development projects have been completed or are under way, diversifying tribal economies, creating jobs and pumping dollars into the region.
The expanded Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa, owned by the Lummi Nation, will open this spring. The Silver Reef is expanding from 130,000 to 186,000 square feet and increasing its payroll from 550 to 565 full-time employees. (This is the fifth expansion of the Silver Reef since its opening in 2002.) It currently features 105 rooms and suites with views of Mount Baker, two live-entertainment and sports venues, seven restaurants, six banquet rooms and a spa. The latest expansion will add a 10,000-square-foot events center, a theater, a Mexican cantina restaurant and bar, and more than 300 additional parking spaces. The expansion will increase Silver Reef’s meeting space from 6,300 to 19,800 square feet.
Silver Reef marketing director Aaron Thomas says Whatcom County hasn’t experienced the economic woes of other Washington counties, partly because of Canadians who cross the border (22 miles north of the casino) to take advantage of lower gas prices, lower sales taxes and big-box stores like Costco. He reports that 50 percent of Silver Reef’s customers are Canadian, up from 40 percent five years ago.
In addition, Whatcom County has a dynamic economy, thanks in large part to an international airport, an interstate highway and rail system, a port and ferry terminal, a university and a community college, farms and farm markets and mountain tourist destinations. According to a recent economic report, the number of jobs in financial activities, manufacturing, retail trade, wholesale trade, transportation and utilities reached new peaks or neared earlier peaks.
Thomas says Silver Reef management conducted a market study to determine what the region needed, and measure the level of interest in proposed new amenities. “The expansion was proposed when the bubble was bursting, so we were trying to figure out what people really wanted,” he explains. “We knew we needed to expand, and people said there was a need for more meeting space in this area.”
Forty-three miles south of Silver Reef, in Skagit County, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s Northern Lights Casino is now Swinomish Casino & Lodge, with a new 98-room lodge overlooking Padilla Bay with views of the Swinomish Channel, the San Juan Islands, Mount Baker, the Olympic Mountains and the coast mountains of British Columbia.
Several features incorporate Swinomish culture. All guest rooms have Swinomish artwork. The new 9,000-square-foot events center is named for the late Swinomish leader Robert “Wa-Walton” Joe (five-time Grammy Award winner Dionne Warwick performed there June 9), and the 13moons Restaurant is named for the 13 Swinomish lunar phases.
The expansion cost $30 million, according to general manager Dallas Widmark, and created 130 jobs, which bumped the overall payroll to about 430 full- and part-time employees. “The expansion created additional revenue streams,” Widmark says. “Our volume has gone through the roof.”
Swinomish Casino & Lodge has three restaurants and a deli. An adjacent RV park, overlooking Padilla Bay, offers 35 full-service sites. There’s also a large grassy area overlooking the bay for outdoor events.
The lodge is also adding a Callaway Fitting Studio, the only one in the Northwest and one of just 20 in the U.S. At the fitting center, staff professionals will use the latest technology to analyze a golfer’s swing, and recommend the club heads and shafts that best fit the golfer’s game. The lodge offers stay-and-play golf packages at nearby Avalon Golf Club, Eaglemont Golf Club and Whidbey Golf & Country Club. Golfers won’t miss a PGA Tour event in the new 10 Sports Bar, which has 18 TV screens.
The saying “location is everything” proves out at the Tulalip Tribes’ Quil Ceda Village—it is roughly 30 miles north of Seattle, and near the heavily traveled Interstate 5. Quil Ceda Village is an economic powerhouse in the region—its Tulalip Resort Casino has one of the largest hotels and spas in the state. It also has the Tulalip Amphitheater, and the largest outlet mall in Washington state.
It recently added a Cabela’s, which is an outfitter of fishing, hunting and outdoor gear. Cabela’s opened a 110,000-square-foot store at Quil Ceda Village on April 19; professional bow hunter Cameron Hanes cut the ribbon with an arrow launched from his compound bow, and the weekend featured talks with fishing and hunting celebrities, contests and giveaways, live music and family activities.
The unit is unique among Cabela’s current 38 stores in the United States and Canada in that the Tulalip Tribes built and own the building, and Cabela’s leases it. The company departed from its interior design template and appointed this outlet with Native art. Among the works by Tulalip artists Joe Gobin, Mike Gobin and James Madison are a 14-foot fan composed of 12 canoe paddles, cedar and steel wildlife wall sculptures, and suspended sculptures of killer whales pursuing a school of salmon. The store features a re-creation of a mountain scene with wildlife mounts, a gun library with antique and collectible guns, an indoor archery range, and aquariums with live bass and trout. “It has been a tremendous success,” says Wes Remmer, Cabela’s spokesman. “[Thanks to] the exposure, right off I-5, and there’s a lot going on [in the area].”
Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon says it is easy to explain the success of this partnership: “It’s ‘location, location, location,’ but it’s also ‘timing, timing, timing.’ Cabela’s has a great product and a great brand. When they saw what Quil Ceda Village had to offer in terms of a relationship, they wanted to do business with us.”
Sheldon says of the unique lessor-lessee relationship between Tulalip and Cabela’s: “It’s a bigger investment for us in their success, and it’s a bigger investment for them in their success.”
Largely because of revenue generated by Quil Ceda Village, the Tulalip Tribes pay above and beyond the state’s minimum wage; the average starting wage is $13 an hour, Sheldon says, “plus health and dental benefits.”
The Tulalip Tribes and Quil Ceda Village provide 7,000 indirect jobs; some 3,500 people work directly for the Tulalip Tribes.
The state of Washington recognizes the economic influence of Quil Ceda Village, if not its status as a federally chartered city on the reservation. The village pays $30 million in sales taxes to the state annually but, unlike other cities and towns, receives no share of that from the state for general government, law and justice and other services. The reason: The state doesn’t recognize Quil Ceda Village as a municipality. “We’re trying to work through it legislatively,” Sheldon says.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle, recently opened the Point Casino—at 52,000 square feet, more than twice the size of its original casino, and it also has a 9,400-square-foot events center. The new casino also features an upscale restaurant, a buffet, a deli and a lounge with music stage. The building has lighted, recessed areas for display of S’Klallam art. The casino has a filtering system that changes the inside air at least six times every hour, making it relatively smoke-free. The new facility added 80 jobs to the casino’s payroll.
Port Gamble S’Klallam also bought at auction the 15-acre Heronswood Gardens from the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Possible future uses include native plant education and events. Like so many of the tribes in Washington, they are looking to grow in many ways.