Casinos flourish in Four Corners
Two tribal gaming expansions in the works

The big jackpot is in no danger of going away any time soon. Casinos throughout the Four Corners are enjoying continued success. Both the Sky Ute and Ute
Mountain Casinos have major expansions planned./Photo by Todd Newcomer..

Gambling is big business in the Four Corners. Each year between 1995-1999, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Indian tribes’ casinos funneled between $29 and $33 million into local and state economies, according to a socio-economic report issued by the state in 2000. And although the tribes don’t reveal their finances, the trend appears to be continuing and even improving as both the Sky Ute and Ute Mountain casinos have expansions in the works.

The Ute Mountain Indian Tribe was the first to open an Indian gaming establishment in Colorado when the Ute Mountain Casino was built 10 miles south of Cortez in late 1992. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe opened the Sky Ute Casino & Lodge in Ignacio, 25 miles southeast of Durango, a year later. Colorado voters’ 1990 approval of gambling in Black Hawk and Cripple Creek inadvertently paved the way for the Sky Ute and Ute Mountain casinos.

“There’s a federal law that allows tribes the same form of gambling allowed in other parts of the state,” said Don Burmania, communications director with the Colorado Division of Gaming.

Since opening, the Sky Ute Casino has grown to include more than 400 slot and video poker machines, six tables featuring blackjack and three-card poker, and a bingo parlor. Sky Ute abides by the Colorado maximum bet of $5 and still has been very profitable, according to General Manager Conrad Granito. However, the casino is only a small part of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s financial portfolio, which is primarily dominated by oil and gas.

“When you look at the casino, we do provide employment for the area, but we’re not the tribe’s main economic engine,” Granito said. “We’re only about 8 or 9 percent of the overall budget. Still, we do make money.”

Near Towaoc, the Ute Mountain Casino boasts more than 500 slot and video poker machines, blackjack and three-card poker tables, numerous other poker offerings, and a 400-seat bingo parlor.

As to the casino’s success, tribal attorney Peter Ortego commented, “On most nights, including week nights, the parking lot is packed. It’s hard to imagine that the casino’s not bringing large amounts of money into Montezuma County.”
Area gamblers also have a third choice in Farmington’s Sun Ray Casino, a nontribal casino whose existence is enabled by the existence of a horse track. “In order to have a casino in New Mexico, you have to have a race track,” said Anthony Montano, Sun Ray marketing director.

In addition to a race track, the casino boasts 485 slot and video poker machines and a theater featuring horse-racing simulcasts. Like the tribal casinos, Sun Ray has not been suffering from a lack of business. Montano commented, “The casino’s absolutely doing really well.”

Granito of the Sky Ute Casino, said that while all the casinos in the area have fairly competitive offerings, they don’t really compete head to head. Instead, as the closest casino to Durango, the Sky Ute goes up against other local entertainment offerings.

“We just don’t compete with Sun Ray or Ute Mountain,” Granito said. “We’re an entertainment choice. We compete for discretionary funding. We’re looking for that extra $50 that might be spent on dinner and a movie or bowling or other entertainment.”

Unlike many other forms of local entertainment, gambling frequently brings related crime with it. Colorado’s socio-economic study in 2000 noted that the Sky Ute and Ute Mountain Casinos have not necessarily been immune to increases in crime. The report found increases in arrest incidences, substance abuse, traffic violations and car accidents.

However, according to La Plata County Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Bender, the increases in crime as a result of Sky Ute have been relatively minor. “It’s an entertainment venue, and we don’t have any more crimes associated with it than with similar venues. It’s not a problem area for the Sheriff’s Office.”
Bender added, “We do have some incidents of theft, trespass and the types of crime typically associated with entertainment, but no more so than any other venue.”

Granito said that Sky Ute and Southern Ute tribe are diligent about keeping problems out of the casino.

“We hand out the Gamblers Anonymous numbers and train our people to spot problems,” he said. “In general, we’ve seen no increase in crime, and we’ve even seen drops in certain areas.”

Ortego of the Ute Mountain Tribe, said that the absence of alcohol in the casinos helps keep crime to a minimum. “We don’t serve alcohol, and that’s always been a major problem with most casinos,” he said. “They lure people there and keep them there for a reason.”

Perhaps the largest testament to local casinos’ success in avoiding problems is the lack of any local or even regional support groups for problem gamblers in spite of the high density of gambling options.

Karen H., international executive secretary for Gamblers Anonymous, did not use her full name because of group policy. She said that her organization is overwhelmed by people seeking help. “Gambling is popping up everywhere,” she said. “We’ve tripled our meetings in the last eight years, and we’re constantly getting inundated with phone calls.”

As to the absence of a support group for the Four Corners, she commented, “It’s probably not indicative of an absence of a problem. It’s probably just that nobody’s taken the initiative to set up a group.”

Regardless, demand for and interest in gambling is on the rise in the Four Corners. Both the Sky Ute and Ute Mountain casinos are responding with plans to meet increasing demand. Sky Ute is working to create a satellite casino at Capote Lake, a long empty reservoir between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs. The Southern Ute Tribe is hoping to tap into more RV business as efforts go forward to refill the reservoir.

“It’s being looked at as we speak,” Granito said.

Meanwhile, the Ute Mountain Casino is working to build a new convention center and hotel.

As Ortego noted comfortably, “I think we are all anticipating that we’ll have more business in the future than we have now.”






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