Black Oak Casino celebrates its 10th anniversary this Sunday, and is already looking ahead to several years’ worth of future growth that could include a hotel and a golf course.
The casino will celebrate its birthday with fireworks and music over the weekend. But it’s behind the scenes where many of the flashier developments have been occurring.
Lester Lingo, development director for the Me-Wuk’s Tuolumne Economic Development Authority, who oversees the casino operation, said the tribe hopes to break ground this summer on a hotel project on the casino grounds.
“We are really pushing to make that happen,” he said.
The hotel is still being designed but is expected to have 160 rooms and a 150-seat conference center. It will be built on what is now a parking lot in front of the casino.
A golf course and 79-unit housing development are on hold for now. They are planned for the 350-acre former West Side Lumber Company property, off Tuolumne Road.
“We aren’t ready financially to do it right now,” Lingo said.
Asked if disputes between the tribe and Tuolumne Sanitary District had any influence on plans for the hotel, Lingo said they did not.
“I have no comment on issues with the sewer district except that they are not holding us up,” he said. “It’s a non-issue as far as this is concerned. We are proceeding with the hotel and hope to break ground this year.”
The tribe has paid roughly $4.5 million dollars for the first phase of construction of a new, $6 million sewer plant for the sanitary district, which includes the town of Tuolumne and nearby areas. The district says the casino owes about $2.9 million more and also wants it to pay $144,000 a year in sewer fees for connections it won’t use until the development is finished.
A 12-pump gas station and 4,500-square-foot mini-mart are being built on land that was used for overflow parking until the casino’s six-story, 1,000-space parking garage was completed in 2009.
The gas station and mini-mart are expected to open in June.
It’s a big deal for Tuolumne residents, who haven’t had a mini-mart or gas station for about a year.
The casino has gone through the same economic recession as the rest of the country in the past three years.
Lingo and General Manager Ron Patel declined to say how much revenue the casino brings in or how much it has declined during the economic downturn.
Patel said the casino managed to keep its employees working, and now the decline in business is showing signs of leveling off.
“With the management team of the tribe, we have learned to be much smarter business-wise,” he said. “We are working very hard at keeping costs down without sacrificing quality or service.”
Lingo said the casino is totally owned and operated by the tribe, which is involved in all management decisions.
“Sometimes it takes longer to get things done that way,” he said, “but I think not hiring any big consulting firms to run things may be why we aren’t having as much economic trouble as a lot of other casinos.”
With humble beginnings in corrugated metal warehouse, Black Oak Casino has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years.
Run by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, the casino employed 190 workers in that first, 28,000-square-foot building on North Tuolumne Road.
The main casino, which rose around the first casino, now employs about 780 people for its gaming floor, bowling alley, arcade, gift shop and restaurants. And the expansion continues. The casino now encompasses 200,000 square feet not including the 271,000-square-foot parking garage.
The casino opened in 2001 with 600 slot machines and six table games. Today it has 1,200 slot machines and 26 table games.
Total employment, including non-casino employees hired by the tribe, is more than 1,000.
As to the casino’s effect on the tribe, Lingo said any tribal member who wants to work can work now. Many are choosing to retire at 60, he noted.
The tribe has also invested in fixing roads and repairing houses on the rancheria for several years, and now they are building new homes for tribal members.
“We own our own fire department and security team,” he said, “and we have our own school, which anybody is welcome to use.”
He added there is a new mechanic shop and training center on the rancheria, along with a nursery, a planning and development department and garbage-collection service.
The social services department has expanded. A youth center offers an after school program and children’s activities, a playground and a ballfield.
“I think members of our tribe have become a lot more sophisticated,” he said. “We work well together as a group.”
The Tuolumne Me-Wuk Medical Clinic, at Tuolumne and Cherry Valley roads, has been one of the tribe’s most successful projects, Lingo said.
It is open to the general public and, “is so busy we are thinking of expanding,” he said.
The tribe also runs a dental clinic in Sonora.
Tribal lands have grown from about 370 acres to 1,700, and the number of tribal members has grown from about 60 to more than 300.
Lingo said many of the new people are tribal members who left at some point and later decided to return.
Lingo said he feels the tribe has had a positive effect on its neighbors, as well.
“We are a major employer locally, and we provide career jobs,” he said, “and I think we have raised property values in the area.”
Lingo and Patel agree that the past 10 years have been an amazing ride.
“It’s like we are a giant family now,” Patel said.
Lingo said the tribe has also become more outgoing than it was before the casino was built.
Tribal Chairman Kevin Day said the tribe has been very pleased with the casino management and staff for the past 10 years, and he is looking forward to seeing what the next 10 years brings.