San Carlos Apaches opening casino 50 miles north of Oro Valley - Inside Tucson Business: News

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San Carlos Apaches opening casino 50 miles north of Oro Valley

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Posted: Thursday, January 2, 2014 3:34 pm

The San Carlos Apache tribe is going to build a casino in southeastern Pinal County.

The Apache Sky Casino, planned for a 230-acre site just outside of the village of Dudleyville along Highway 77, is something to look forward to not only for the tribe and other residents in this quiet corner of the state, but for gaming enthusiasts in Oro Valley and Tucson’s other northwest suburbs.

Gary Murrey, CEO and general manager of the planned Apache Sky and its sister site, the 20-year-old Apache Gold Casino just outside of Globe, said phase one of the project should be open by April 2015. This will be the actual gaming facility, with 400 to 500 slot machines, 10 to 12 table games, six poker tables, and a full-service restaurant and lounge. This phase, now in the design stage, should cost between $26 million and $30 million and create about 350 permanent jobs, plus a couple hundred construction jobs.

A hotel is likely to follow. Its size will depend on how the casino itself performs, Murrey said. If the attraction takes off, leaders will consider adding features such as a theater, bowling alley or conference center.

The tribe is taking a conservative approach with this venture, he said - leaders want to establish a good revenue flow with the basics before expansions, and to not overbuild. Ideally, Apache Sky, which will be about 50 miles north of Oro Valley, will be similar in size and scope to the Apache Gold, which boasts a 146-room hotel and convention center, three restaurants, a lounge, an 18-hole golf course, a 6,000-seat concert and rodeo pavilion, a convenience mart and gas station, and a 60-space RV park in addition to its gaming hall.

“We want to really look at what the community needs rather than just focus on what we think or want,” Murrey said.

The Apache Sky is going up in a region known as the Copper Corridor, a roughly 80-mile stretch of Highway 77 anchored at the north by Superior and the south by SaddleBrooke. Population is sparse here, and mining, though far less of a force than it was in the early and mid-20th century, is the economic driver. Many people are retired.

Still, Tim Kanavel, program manager for Pinal County Economic Development, said the area is already a good place for historical and ecological tourism. Attractions along the corridor include the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Biosphere 2, and the remains of old Camp Grant and mining ghost towns. Hikers and bird-watchers are drawn to Aravaipa Canyon and surrounding wilderness. People even come to the small town of Kearny to see the still-operating Ray Mine – the Asarco-owned copper mine is one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.

But while there’s no lack of things to see in the region, with few, if any, hotel rooms, it’s hard to keep visitors overnight, Kanavel said. The casino can thus enhance tourism even if guests never bet a buck.

Murrey said the tribe also considered building closer to Safford or Seneca, but the Dudleyville-adjacent spot made the most sense.

“The population base that is within an hour drive is far greater at the new location than where we are currently,” he said.

Kanavel agreed. Local population may be small — perhaps up to 17,000 along the corridor, he estimated — but reaching out a little farther makes the location ideal for potential guests from Pima, Pinal and Phoenix’ East Valley. For day-trippers out of northern Pima County in particular, this could even be an easier jaunt than the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui-run casinos south of Tucson. He said a study indicated that traffic between Oro Valley and the Desert Diamond casino off Nogales Highway, for example, could make the drive take longer than it would to head from Oro Valley to Dudleyville, even though it’s a greater distance.

“Once you leave the area around SaddleBrooke, there’s not another traffic light all the way up there,” he said.

Kanavel said that although the casino itself will be on the reservation, Pinal County will reap the benefits of nearby, off-reservation services such as gas stations. He’s also excited by the job prospects, and he looks forward to Central Arizona College, Pinal County’s community college, providing job training skills for the specialized hospitality work.

“Four-hundred jobs is not insignificant anywhere,” Kanavel said. “I wouldn’t care if you talked about 400 McDonald’s jobs, but these are going to be 400 very good-paying jobs.”

Murrey said he is watching and learning from Tucson’s Casino del Sol and Arizona’s two newest Indian casinos, the Gila River tribe’s Vee Quiva southwest of Phoenix and the Navajos’ Twin Arrows east of Flagstaff. While it will be smaller than the casinos in the metro Tucson and Phoenix areas, the San Carlos Apaches want Apache Sky to be first class, and they’re building out the infrastructure to handle a full-scale resort.

Murrey said the tribe drew up a plan for this casino in 2007, but shelved it when the economy soured. But after a feasibility study and support from leaders, tribal members and neighbors, officials decided to try again.

Pinal County can revitalize a region hushed by the decline in mining, and the 15,000-member San Carlos Apache tribe can generate needed money for infrastructure, social and health programs on the reservation, Murrey said.

“I think it’s just the time, and the sooner that we can bring in long-term economic stability to the tribe the better.”

Contact reporter Hillary Davis at hdavis@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4254.