SANTEE, Neb. — The Santee Sioux Nation is gambling on the success of its new Ohiya Casino and Resort. But with all the resort’s amenities, casino manager Thelma Thomas thinks the new facility makes for a pretty good bet.
Thomas noted the flurry of construction now under way at the site south of Nebraska Highway 12. The site is located about two miles east of the present casino, or about seven miles east of Niobrara, Neb.
A large sign greets passersby and announces the December 2012 opening date for the casino and resort.
“We have advertised a December 2012 opening. It’s a ‘fast build,’ but that’s what we’re shooting for,” Thomas told the Press & Dakotan. “This work has been in the process for several years, and now it has intensified since last fall.”
In June 2011, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) of Minnesota awarded a loan of up to $20 million to the Santee Sioux Nation to build a new Ohiya Casino and Lodge. The groundbreaking was held last October.
Work on the new casino and resort has moved quickly, according to Santee Sioux tribal chairman Roger Trudell.
“I am pleased to report that the Building Committee has worked very hard over the past six months to make the new casino and resort a reality,” he wrote in a newsletter.
“We have engaged the services of Creative Casino Solutions, a company whose principals have over 75 years of experience in the casino business, to assist in the management of the design and construction of the project.”
The tribe has selected Taylor Woodstone Construction as general contractor, Trudell said in the newsletter.
“They have significant experience building casinos and hotels for other tribes,” he said.
Providing A Major Boost
The new Ohiya Casino and Resort includes a 25,000-square-foot casino; 47-room lodge with two luxury suites, a banquet facility and conference center; a convenience store and gas station to replace the existing Feather Hill gas station; and an 18-hole golf course and club house.
The expanded casino will offer 400 Class II gaming machines, or double the current number, Thomas said. The new amenities will make Ohiya Casino a destination resort, she said.
“We open in December, so we can host Christmas parties and other events,” she said. “And with our new events center at the complex, we plan to host as many conferences and as much entertainment as we can. There will actually be lodging available that didn’t exist in this part of Nebraska.”
The aggressive marketing will lead to another major benefit — jobs. The larger casino and resort should more than double the current 40 full- and part-time employees to around 100 staff members, Thomas said.
Those jobs will exert a major impact on the regional economy, she said. And that’s particular important on the reservation, which suffers from 75 percent unemployment.
“It’s something that is certainly very positive in helping with economic development not only for our service area but for all of northeast Nebraska,” she said. “The employment is not only for the Santee Sioux but also for our neighbors surrounding us. We are adding 40 to 50 jobs — that’s huge for us. It would be huge for Yankton. It’s quite a great thing.”
Plans are already under way for securing the additional staff, Thomas said.
“We are looking at an employee job fair going in the month of October so we can select employees and go through training before we open,” she said.
When it was opened in 1996, Ohiya Casino — named for the Dakota word for “winner” or “victor” — became Nebraska’s first casino. Amidst legal battles with state and federal officials, the tribe operated the casino out of an old cafe in Santee. The small casino, which opened with 29 gaming machines and nine employees, was located atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River in northern Knox County, Neb.
To obtain greater visibility and access, the casino was relocated about a decade ago. The casino now occupies a renovated box factory at the intersection and Nebraska Highway 12 and Spur 54D leading to Santee. The Feather Hill Express gas station and convenience store lies to the east of the casino.
What will happen to the current Ohiya Casino?
“That’s a tribal decision, but there is such a shortage of facilities on the reservation that they may decide to use it (for that reason),” Thomas said.
She’s also unsure of what will happen to the current Feather Hill Express once the new casino and resort open later this year.
Rolling Out The Red Carpet
In the tribal newsletter, Chairman Trudell said the casino and resort incorporate design elements. The new facilities will offer a number of amenities, he said.
At the front door is a canopy designed to allow three lanes of traffic to drop off and pick up customers during inclement weather. The canopy has also been customized to accommodate buses.
“The structure is sized to allow buses that will bring gamers to the (site) to off-load and load their passengers,” he said.
As visitors enter the casino, they will find the main lobby with a fireplace and sculptural “tipi” light that forms the focal point of the entire complex.
“The gaming floor, restaurant, event center and hotel all radiate from this iconic overhead structure,” Trudell said.
The new casino’s floor has been designed for 400 electronic gaming machines, compared to the current 200 machines, he said.
“Gaming machines will be provided by as many as five different vendors to provide our guests with the best possible selection of gaming opportunities,” the tribal chairman said.
The casino and resort will offer expanded food and beverage options. A 34-seat cafe will feature hot and cold foods with self-service capabilities. A 32-seat buffet area includes service stations, and a 54-seat restaurant offers full table service.
“All restaurants are grouped around a common kitchen that will allow the venues to be used with great flexibility,” Trudell said. “On the opposite side of the casino floor is a full bar with eight bar-top gaming devices, food, golf check-in and retail sales.”
Thomas sees tremendous potential with the flexibility in food services.
“(Visitors) can go through anything from a buffet to fine dining,” she said. “We will also be available to do catering, and our events center will be organized so they can (handle) banquets and have a larger kitchen set-up.”
The two-story hotel offers 45 king and double queen rooms. The hotel also offers a large two-room suite and an oversized junior king suite.
Off the main eating area, the casino offers a 4,000-square-foot events center with room for bingo, weddings, business meetings and entertainment events.
“Depending on the type of event and whether or not food is being served, the event center will accommodate 400 guests, or 200 for banquet seating,” Trudell said.
Two significant exterior areas surround the building.
The east end offers an outdoor event gathering area for weddings, business meetings and cultural ceremonies. At the back of the hotel, overlooking the golf course, is an outdoor pool and deck area for guests and summertime parties.
The casino and resort include the gift shop, convenience store and gas station and 18-hole golf course.
Ohiya Casino and Resort won’t miss a beat as it moves to its new home, Thomas said.
“When we make the move, we won’t lose any business (during the transition period),” she said.
Ohiya Casino and Resort comes on the heels of other Santee success stories, such as a new medical clinic and new convenience store along with a new community college campus slated to open this fall. The Santee Sioux are also working on a new justice center that would offer more space for trials, hearings, court services, administrative offices and law enforcement.
“Things are really moving on the reservation,” Thomas said. “We’re on the go.”
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf