Tribal casinos were not an overnight hit in Oklahoma.
Yet growth of the tribal gaming industry has risen at an astronomical rate for more than a decade.
Is there still room for more growth?
“Oklahoma is unique because there was so much cooperation and recognition and acceptance between the tribes and the state,” said Bill Miller, CEO of the American Gaming Association. “Yes, we’re very optimistic about the future of gaming in this state.”
Miller was in Tulsa last week for a “Get to Know Gaming” seminar to highlight the remarkable growth of an industry that barely existed 25 years ago.
Now, gaming generates nearly $9.8 billion a year for Oklahoma’s economy.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of Indian gaming in our state because there is such a good relationship between the tribal entities and the state government,” said Byron Bighorse, CEO of Osage Casinos. “We want to help our tribal members through these operations, and it also helps grow jobs and the economy throughout northeastern Oklahoma.
“Even with a new governor, lieutenant governor and many new legislators, we’re all very optimistic that this spirit of cooperation will continue.”
In the decade between 2006 and 2016, tribal exclusivity fees remitted to the state topped $1 billion, according to the American Gaming Association.
“I believe Oklahoma is one of the best stories of how tribal nations, politicians and business leaders created an environment to work together for the better of all,” said Miller “The tribal nations have been able to take that money and use it for the benefit of many underserved people ... and used it to diversify their businesses.”
It could be argued Oklahoma is the nation’s brightest star of tribal gaming.
“From every indication, it appears we should continue to grow,” said Pat Crofts, CEO of Muscogee (Creek) Casinos. “We’re all sharing in the success of the industry here in our state. It is great for our tribes, and it is great for the entire state.
“Certainly, it has been great for our tribe and northeastern Oklahoma. We couldn’t be happier with the way our gaming operations are performing.”
Tribal and commercial entities operate 141 casinos across the state. That puts Oklahoma third in the nation for gaming operations behind Nevada and California.
“When you create a buzz, as tribal gaming has done in Oklahoma, then the employees and all of the businesses around it benefit,” said Miller. “Gaming has helped create development and a level of stability with it.”
In fact, tribal gaming has become a giant economic engine across the state.
Three major casino resorts have opened in the Tulsa metropolitan area in the past decade, adding more than 1,000 hotel rooms, three major entertainment venues and dozens of restaurant/bar options for a growing Tulsa tourism industry.
According to the American Gaming Association, based in Washington, D.C., tribal gaming in Oklahoma supports about 75,000 jobs and $4.3 billion in supported wages.
It is an industry that is growing everywhere in the state. Northeastern Oklahoma has dozens of casinos from near Fort Smith, Arkansas, to near Joplin, Missouri, to the Tulsa metropolitan area and Ponca City.
“There’s always potential for more growth,” said Mark Fulton, COO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment. “What you’ve seen in the Tulsa area is growth into a major regional attraction. We believe it will continue to grow, and we will continue to reinvest in our operation.
“I don’t know if we’ll see double-digit growth in the future. We are a mature industry now. However, we have seen steady growth.”
It isn’t just northeastern Oklahoma. Two major casino resorts are located near the Red River off major highways between Oklahoma and the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
The Chickasaw Nation operates the WinStar World Casino near Thackerville, just off Interstate 35 near the Red River. WinStar advertises itself as the world’s largest casino (600,000 square feet), stretching along a mile of gaming floor with the largest collection of electronic and table games anywhere in the world. The main casino complex boasts more than 1,300 hotel rooms.
The Choctaw Nation has a similar $360 million resort complex near Durant, just off U.S. 75 near the Red River. It has more than 700 rooms at the casino complex with about 218,000 square feet on its gaming floor.
“As a tribe, we thought long and hard whether we should be involved in tribal gaming,” said Bill John Baker, chief of the Cherokee Nation, the nation’s largest tribe with about 360,000 citizens. “There was a great deal of debate.
“We got involved because the money would come back to the tribe and make the lives of Cherokees better. We could not have done that if we had not become a gaming tribe. I’m a fan of gaming.”