Arts and Entertainment

Suquamish Casino thriving — and hiring — despite recession

Amidst the daunting economic recession and alarming unemployment numbers, the Suquamish Clearwater Casino is said to have about 20 open positions it’s looking to fill. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Amidst the daunting economic recession and alarming unemployment numbers, the Suquamish Clearwater Casino is said to have about 20 open positions it’s looking to fill.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Three times a week for the past five years Mario Brown has made the trek from Everett to Kitsap to try his luck at the area’s tribal casinos.

Even the national economy’s continuing downward spiral — the steady rise in unemployment, major corporations closing doors and significant industry declines in nearly every business sector — Brown’s not sweating laying down the dough for frivolous fun.

He still makes his tri-weekly excursions. However, his gambling style has seen a cutback.

He always used to bet the maximum $3 while playing his favorite slots, now his bets cap at 30 cents per whirl of the lucky 7’s. He used to drop $1,000 a night. Now he only allots $100 to $200 for an evening on the gaming floor.

“I’m spending less,” Brown said, playing slots at The Point Casino Feb. 4. “I don’t really feel safe in this economy, whereas before I didn’t have to worry about having a cushion, so now it’s scary. I spend less at each trip rather than not coming.”

He knows of others who are getting nervous and not coming as much, or not at all.

Jerry Schmidt, 62, a local gamer of some eight years, hasn’t cut his spending or casino frequency, but he’s seen marked changes in fellow casino patrons.

Nobody really talks about it, Schmidt said, it’s all visual.

He used to watch regulars plunk down $2 to $4 per bet and now it’s 40-60 cents per gamble.

“The bets are going down. People have cut down a little bit,” he said. “Let’s pray things get better for everybody. We all have to worry about our jobs.”

As local gamers become more cash conscious, pray tell what that might hold in store for the health of the North End’s gaming hot beds — The Point Casino and Clearwater Casino.

Conventional wisdom has held that some industries — like adult entertainment, sports and gaming — are recession proof. But that wisdom is being put to the test as the nation continues to creep down the path of economic unknowns.

The adult industry has been hit, the sports world is gearing up for a dinger and the nation’s gaming strong holds are struggling.

“Typically this type of economy never used to impact gaming or drinking but it’s different this time,” said The Point Casino’s General Manager Leo Culloo.

The national gaming Mecca of Nevada is currently experiencing its longest decline ever, Nevada Gaming Commission Senior Financial Analyst Frank Streshley noted. Nevada’s gaming revenue was down a record-setting 8.9 percent in 2008. The previous low being a 1.3 percent decline in 2001.

“It’s been 11 straight months of month-over-month decline in gaming revenue,” Streshley said. “Some major projects planned or in construction have been halted. It’s very difficult times. The severity of this recession makes it difficult.”

And it’s not just Nevada’s luck that’s running dry.

Washington is home to 79 house-banked card rooms and 28 tribal casinos. And, according to a Washington State Gambling Commission statistics report from 2008, overall gambling receipts have decreased. For fiscal year 2008 the industry’s gross receipts rang in at $682.5 million, which is a 4.2 percent decline over 2007, and a 22.5 percent decline since 2005.

In North Kitsap, the two tribal casinos appear to be weathering the downturn with minor glitches. The Clearwater saw 5.8 percent growth for 2008, Port Madison Enterprise Chief Executive Officer Russel Steele said, but the meeting/banquet business experienced a slight decline.

The Point, on the other hand, is experiencing some decline in the revenue department, but guest counts are up.

A 7-year-old, 17,000 square foot establishment with 578 slots machines, The Point had experienced healthy growth every year until the end of 2008, when it plateaud.

“The fact we’re flat with very little growth indicates our business has been impacted by the economy,” Culloo said. “We’re seeing an increase in the amount of guest visits, but a decrease in the amount of money that each individual guest brings.”

Culloo said The Point’s guest counts for January increased 12 percent, but similar to the stories of Brown and Schmidt, he’s noticed smaller bets.

“What we see is average bet per play is down,” Culloo said. “For most it’s about an entertainment experience. They bring ‘X’ amount of money for play time. To ensure the experience lasts longer they lower their bets over a period of time.”

The Point, which employs 139, hasn’t had to cut staff or benefits amidst the decline, but does have a hiring and wage increase freeze in place. Instead of laying off employees, they job share between departments.

Opened in 2003, the Clearwater, a 35,000 square foot establishment with 1,300 slot machines and 31 table games, hasn’t experienced much impact at all, Steele said. He said he hasn’t noticed smaller bets, and maybe there’s been a little dip in foot traffic, but he noted that more toward the end of last summer as gas prices rocketed.

“We’re not immune, but if you’re proactive you certainly can have a healthier environment,” Steele said. He attributes the Clearwater’s health to a convenient location and good local support. “You don’t have to go far from Seattle to get to us and 40 percent of our hotel business is from Kitsap County and 70 percent of our casino business is Kitsap.”

The Clearwater employs some 760, and Steele said no jobs have been endangered. In fact, the Clearwater currently has 20 positions open.

Concern for continued health and prosperity of the North End’s gaming industry doesn’t stem from a need to offer entertainment to locals and visitors, but because of the economic benefits the two establishments provide to the community.

Both casinos’ ability to maintain jobs and even hire at this time is all the more valuable as on Feb. 5 National Public Radio reported an additional 626,000 individuals filed for unemployment in the last week across the country, which is a 26-year high, bringing the national total to 4.8 million.

The tribal gaming industries are among the region’s top employers at a time when Kitsap’s unemployment rate has hit 6.1 percent, according to Washington State Employment Security Department numbers with an additional 90,300 new unemployment filings across the state NPR reported Feb. 6.

Aside from job retention the revenue generated by the S’Klallam tribe’s Point Casino and by the Suquamish’s Clearwater, owned by Port Madison Enterprises, fund valuable social services for the tribes while supporting numerous nonprofit organizations through grants.

Of The Point’s intake, approximately $168,000 is being applied toward the cost of a new youth center, scheduled to be built this spring. Last year the S’Klallam tribe gave approximately $57,200 in grants and in 2009 more than $70,000 will be given out through grants to non-profit agencies in nearby communities, S’Klallam tribe acting Chief Executive Officer Laurie Mattson wrote in an e-mail.

In 2008, the combined annual giving for the Suquamish tribe and PME was $530,748.

Both Culloo and Steele anticipate their establishments will weather the reeling economic storm just fine.

Culloo notes The Point is in good position because it has minimal debt, and once the casino is able to offer more amenities growth should resume.

Steele contended it’s a disillusion to think the gaming industry is recession proof, but the Clearwater is in fine shape and will stay there, with a little work.

“You have to be conscious and keep an eye on the game every day,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”

Tara Lemm is the North End reporter for the North Kitsap Herald and also a nutrition columnist, writing from Nature’s Kitchen for What’s Up.

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