Meredith Stewart quickly deals out the cards for blackjack, one of the most popular games at the Wild Horse Pass Casino on the Gila River Indian Community.
Players place their bets, the last cards are flipped over, and more often than not, Stewart collects the losses.
The casino is crowded, even on a weekday. The slot machines beep and ding, their bright lights flashing in the otherwise dim rooms.
And the money flows.
Millions a year
Revenue from casino gaming is the driving force behind economic development on the Gila River Indian Community and other reservations across the country.
Gaming tribes in Arizona took in nearly $1.8 billion in gross gaming in fiscal 2006, part of more than $22 billion in Indian gaming revenue nationwide.
A report from the Arizona Department of Gaming shows Arizona tribes brought in about $1.79 billion in fiscal year 2006, an increase of nearly 17 percent from the year before.
The three Gila River casinos, Wild Horse Pass, Lone Butte and Vee Quiva, have 1,875 Class III gaming machines, nearly 15 percent of the total number of Class III machines in Arizona, more than any other tribe.
The exact revenue per tribe is proprietary, but a crude calculation indicates Gila River is bringing in hundreds of millions each year.
If the community took in 15 percent of the total state gaming revenue, it would total more than $280 million. The actual amount could be higher or lower based on other types of gambling, such as keno, bingo, poker and blackjack and amenities such as restaurants.
Nationally, Indian gaming is a thriving industry. Figures released by the National Indian Gaming Commission for the fiscal year 2005, the latest available, show gross gaming revenues of $22.63 billion, a 16 percent increase over fiscal year 2004.
And much of that flows through Arizona, which ranks only behind California and Connecticut in Indian gaming revenues, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report, an independent report on the industry.
There’s no question about it,” said Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association and a Gila River member. “Gaming has been one of those hugely successful economic development opportunities that tribes have been able to get into.”
Stewart, 33, is a mother of one who grew up on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. She is just one example of how gaming revenues have changed the lives of tribal members.
Unlike other tribes in the state, the Gila River Indian Community has not distributed gaming profits through individual payments to tribal members. While that is slated to change because of a recent tribal vote, casino profits have already translated into major improvements in infrastructure and social programs, such as health care, police and fire departments, education and housing.
The community paid Stewart’s tuition so she could pursue an associate degree in justice administration at the Arizona Institute of Business and Technology. She earned a steady paycheck from the casino and the tribe paid her rent and gave her a monthly stipend of $700 for utilities and groceries.
“Without the casinos, I would have had to do it all myself,” Stewart said.
Arizona also profits from Indian gaming. A portion of gaming revenues must be given to the state under a law that went into effect in 2003.
On a sliding scale each quarter, tribes must pay one percent of the first $25 million in net wins they collect, three percent for the next $50 million, six percent for the next $25 million, and eight percent if gaming revenues surpass $100 million.
In fiscal year 2006, tribes contributed $91.7 million.
Of that, 12 percent is distributed by tribes to the towns or counties of their choice. In 2005 alone, that totaled $10.62 million in gifts.
In October, 2006, The Gila River Indian Community contributed more than $2.5 million to programs in cities including Tempe, Phoenix, Maricopa, Gilbert, Peoria, Florence, Mesa, Scottsdale and Queen Creek, as well as to Maricopa County.
The money benefited youth outreach programs, fire safety, traffic enforcement, senior meals, childhood literacy and even bought a fire truck for the Mayer Fire District. The largest gift was a $500,000 five-year grant to a Phoenix homeless shelter.
The remaining 88 percent of the money tribes pay the state – a total of $81.09 million in 2006 -- goes to the Arizona Benefits Fund. Most of that money -- $40 million in 2006 -- is passed on to school districts and charter schools to increase teacher compensation, reduce class sizes and aid dropout prevention and reading skills programs, according to the annual report of the Arizona Department of Gaming, which oversees the fund.
About two percent, or about $1.6 million in 2006, is used for state and local programs to combat problem gambling. The rest goes to Arizona hospitals, the Arizona Wildlife Conservation Fund, the Arizona tourism fund and to help defray the cost to the state of gambling oversight and regulation.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Strolling through the casinos, it would be easy to think there are almost as many employees as patrons.
There are cleaning crews, pit bosses, security guards and drink servers, dealers, slot operators and cashiers, just to name a few.
More than 10,000 jobs have been created by Indian gaming statewide, and 43 percent of those are filled by Native Americans, according to the Arizona Indian Gaming Association’s 2005 annual report.
Kenneth Manuel, a member of the Gila River Casinos’ board of directors, said the casinos make a concerted effort to hire community members, although members still remain a minority of employees. As of September, 2006, the Gila River Casinos had 1,933 employees, and about half were members, according to the Gila River Indian Community Economic Development Department.
“Our first preference is to hire members of the Gila River Indian Community,” Manuel said. “Second is spouses of members, third is to hire Native Americans of other tribal descent, and fourth is anyone else.
“We have job fairs within the districts and a human resources staff that works diligently to hire and recruit members and encourage members to apply for positions,” he said.
Manuel said Gila River Casinos also offers a mentorship program to help employees advance.
“If an individual has a strong desire to want to move up to a higher position, they can work with human resources and 'shadow,’ working alongside a manager,” he said. “They are evaluated, given tasks and then moved into a possible management position.”
Manuel is an example of the opportunity created by the casinos.
He lived on the Gila River reservation until high school and came back when he was 22. He was hired to oversee slot machines when the casino opened in 1994. Six months later, he was promoted to a management position as the department director for slot operations.
In August, 2004, Manuel left to work for the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, then moved on to work as a compliance officer in the Tribal Employment Rights Office. He came back in 2006 when he was appointed by the tribal council to the Gila River Casinos board.
Manuel said that dealers start at minimum wage, but the majority of their income comes from tips.
“Depending on your skill level, your customer relations and the speed of the game, you can make quite a bit,” he said.
In addition to dealers, slot operation staff and other “floor” positions, Manuel said there are 17 departments in the casinos, each with department directors, managers and shift supervisors.
Gaming and the jobs it brings have helped to decrease unemployment and increase income on reservations across the country, according to an analysis of U.S. census figures by The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
The report, titled “American Indians on Reservations: A Databook of Socioeconomic Change Between the 1990 and 200 Censuses,” found that the positive changes affected both gaming and non-gaming tribes.
On non-gaming reservations, the unemployment rate decreased 2 percent, from 18 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2000, according to the report. Gaming reservations saw unemployment drop 5 percent, from 26 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2000.
The rates are still well above the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 6 percent, which remained constant from 1990 to 2000.
The report also found that real per capita income increased by 21 percent on non-gaming reservations and 36 percent on gaming reservations. This compares with an 11 percent increase for the rest of the U. S.
In addition, the median household income increased 14 percent on non-gaming reservations and 35 percent on gaming reservations, compared to 4 percent for the rest of the country.
More growth ahead
The Gila River Indian Community recently announced plans to move its popular Wild Horse Pass Casino to a location closer to Interstate 10.
The relocation, which will move the casino less than a mile from its current spot to a new, $150-million building, is part of a plan that includes a 10-story hotel, pool, health club and spa, stories and restaurants.
“We’re currently a 'locals’ casino,” Manuel said. “We cater to the neighboring communities, including the older communities of Sun Lakes and Sun City…” With the new casino, the community will step up its national and even international marketing in an attempt to bring in a broader clientele.
At Wild Horse Pass, Stewart is still dealing cards and chatting with the players.
“It’s about time,” she says, when she finally deals a down-on-his-luck player a blackjack.
She wants the players to win, she said. Because when they win, they keep playing -- and tipping. And the more they play, the more the casino brings in.
Stewart, whose father is Pima, began working at the casinos five years ago in the cage and vault department. She moved to slots before becoming a blackjack dealer. In an average day shift, she said she can bring home $250 in tips. A good night shift can net $600 in tips.
Stewart’s shift ends, but the casino never stops. New players come in just as quickly as others leave. The slots keep spinning, the cards keep getting dealt, the lights and sounds keep flashing and blaring.
But above all else, the money keeps coming in.