Casinos thrive in Oklahoma while 3 of Kansas‘ 4 gaming zones are empty

Casino hotel towers are beginning to loom over the landscape. But that landscape isn’t in Kansas. It’s in Oklahoma, where tribal casinos are outgrowing their truck-stop image. Several have become the lavish destination resorts Kansas thought it was getting when lawmakers passed an expanded gaming bill in 2007.

While Kansas waits for a new round of proposals after the sinking economy wiped out casino plans in Sumner County and elsewhere, Oklahoma tribes that secured financing before the credit markets tightened have been building new hotels, restaurants, golf courses, entertainment and convention centers, and more to lure gamblers from wide distances.

Kansas Lottery director Ed Van Petten doesn’t think the growth south of the state line would hurt a project in Sumner or Wyandotte counties.

„Right now it’s more an economic problem than a competition problem,“ Van Petten said.

But Oklahoma’s expanded casinos are going after Kansas gamblers.

The Cherokee Casino Resort in Catoosa, east of Tulsa, is completing a USD 155 million expansion and rebranding itself as a Hard Rock casino to draw out-of-staters and build customer loyalty while Kansas stands still.

„We’re leveraging that customer base to increase it and gain more market base and reach out further away from the casino,“ said David Stewart, chief executive of Cherokee Nation Enterprises.

The Quapaw Tribe’s USD 301 million Downstream Casino Resort in northeast Oklahoma, which forced casino developer Penn National Gaming to give up on building a casino in nearby Cherokee County in Kansas, opened a large hotel in July with five restaurants, an outdoor concert venue and a 36-hole golf course.

It plans a second phase that will include another hotel. And officials are thinking of expanding into Cherokee County, where the tribe owns several hundred acres. The Kansas state line is only 65 feet from the Downstream’s entrance.

The tribe won’t rule out the possibility of bidding for a Kansas casino.

„I think it’s always possible, but we’re not making a big commitment or effort to get there,“ said John Berrey, Quapaw tribal chairman and chairmanof the Downstream Development Authority, which owns and operates the property for the tribe.

„We’re just sort of looking at every possibility,“ he said.

Berrey doubts any outside company will make a bid for a Cherokee County casino by April 21, a new deadline set by the Kansas Lottery after no one applied by the Jan. 21 deadline.

A bill is being drafted in the Legislature to reduce the minimum investment in that zone from USD 225 million to USD 50 million, the amount required for the Dodge City casino.

As landowners in Cherokee County, the tribe regretted that Penn pulled out and that no one seems interested in building a casino next door, Berrey said.

„It would add to our customer base, and we think it would be a lot of fun,“ Berrey said.

The Downstream was built as a luxury destination resort to draw from a four-state area. It includes new video-game technology, a ventilation system that clears the casino air of smoke, and a 12-story, 222-room hotel that features high-end linens.

Its 1 million square feet of casino and hotel space is covered by carpeting made in Ireland.

Oklahoma’s thriving casino business

In Catoosa, the Cherokee Casino Resort has added 30,000 square feet to its casino floor for 800 new slot machines and an 80-foot-long bar made of solid ice.

In the spring, it will become the only Hard Rock casino in the Midwest. It will open a 19-story, 200-room hotel consisting primarily of luxury megasuites, a multipurpose theater and events center, a convention center and a Toby Keith restaurant.