Courtesy Apache Gold Casino Resort
The exterior of Apache Gold Casino Resort, which will undergo a $10 million renovation.

Tribe Doubles Down: Plans Call for $10M Renovation Plus Second $25-30M Casino

Lee Allen

It's no wonder that a primary economic focus for the San Carlos Apache Nation, whose Arizona-based home encompasses seven biotic regions ranging from desert to forest, is recreation and wildlife. The 3,000-square-mile reservation teems with some of the largest antler-bearing elk in the world, as well as deer, big horn sheep, javelina, antelope, black bear, mountain lion, wild turkey and more, making it a big and small game hunting destination. The tribe's unspoiled lakes and streams, offering Native species like Apache Trout, attract anglers, and the tribe's waters also allow for year-round recreational pursuits like whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing.

Twenty years ago, the tribe expanded its business offerings with its first gaming enterprise, Apache Gold Casino Resort, five minutes east of Globe in Gila County, Arizona. In addition to gaming, the casino offers a 146-room Best Western Hotel, an 18-hole championship golf course Apache Stronghold, a cabaret with live entertainment, and a 60-space RV park.

But the San Carlos Apache Tribe remains one of the poorest Native American communities in the country, according to the the 2010 U.S. Census. For the estimated 10,000 reservation residents, the median household income is $26,915 (compared to $51,310 for the rest of the State of Arizona). Forty percent of all households have incomes of less than $20,000, and less than half of the youth population was categorized as being employed. A sound economic base is important for any locale, but especially so within this tribal community dominated by young people—nearly 40 percent of the current population is under age 18.

The tribe hopes its next endeavor will change their economic climate. The tribe is gearing up to open its second gaming facility, Apache Sky Casino. Plans call for it to be built some 50 miles away from the first site along a sparsely populated 80-mile stretch of Highway 77 (Milepost 127). The roadway is known as the Copper Corridor because it runs through small mining communities. While travelers can spot the glowing casino signs from the highway, it will be reachable via a half-mile-long access road. 

On the drawing boards since 2007, the concept of a second casino was shelved some five to six years ago when the country’s economy began to tank. A recent feasibility study indicated the current outlook is more promising. 

“It’s time,” says Gary Murrey, CEO and general manager of Apache Gold and the planned Apache Sky. “We need to generate dollars to pay for infrastructure, social programs, and health efforts on the reservation. The sooner we can bring long-term economic stability to the tribe, the better.”

Even as a $10 million renovation is underway at the Apache Gold property, phase one construction on the 230-acre Apache Sky location just outside the village of Dudleyville should be completed by April of 2015. The gaming facility will open its doors with some 500 slot machines, about a dozen table games, six poker tables, a restaurant, and a lounge.  This part of an overall ambitious development project is anticipated to cost between $25-$30 million. It’s anticipated there will be a couple hundred construction jobs to put the pieces together and ultimately as many as 500-600 living wage jobs to revitalize the community once the builders are done.

Depending on how well the casino performs, phase two could include a 150-room hotel and possible additional features such as a conference center, multiple restaurants and entertainment options like a bowling alley or a theatre. “Phase two might be five years down the road,” Murrey says.

Currently hotel rooms in the area are minimal to non-existent, and it’s hard to keep visitors overnight. Tim Kanavel  of the Pinal County Economic Development says the casino (with hotel) development plans could change all that and draw more visitors from the Tucson and Phoenix metropolitan areas who might extend their stay. Although the casino itself will be on sovereign land, Pinal County will also reap ancillary benefits because of its presence.

“We’ve not yet done an economic study because everything is currently a moving target and it would only be a guesstimate at this point, but we know the County will end up generating money from this ambitious project,” said Kanavel. 

“We see this as an economic benefit to the tribe and the community of Dudleyville,” says Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios, a long-time supporter of gaming on Indian lands.

“Under our compact with the state, our tribe is allocated two such gaming facilities and we’re pleased the Board of Supervisors has given their enthusiastic support of our second location,” says Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

The site has been picked, utility and security contracts are currently underawy, and the groundbreaking is expected in the near future for the first structures: a fabric-topped casino building and an administration support building.

While hiring preference will be given to tribal members—including temporary construction work to permanent staff positions, “we anticipate a good number of hires will come from off-reservation, perhaps half the new employees or more, because of the home-to-work travel distance involved for many Apaches currently living in San Carlos,” Kanavel says.

As time passes, the trip to work may be shortened.  “I can’t speak for the tribe,” says Murrey, “but I believe they intend to ultimately build a community in the area to help support those tribal members who might want to work at Apache Sky.”