|Snoqualmie slot machines and tables.|
December 23, 2011
By Lynda Mapes, Seattle Times staff reporter
In its latest business venture the Snoqualmie Tribe is looking all the way to Fiji.
The Fijian government announced Tuesday its decision to grant the nation’s first-ever exclusive gambling license to One Hundred Sands, which has announced plans to build a $290 million, five-star luxury casino resort on Denarau Island, in a partnership with the Snoqualmie Tribe.
“One Hundred Sands has taken care to strategically partner with the Snoqualmie Tribe from Washington State and Seventh Generation LLC, a Native American company with demonstrated excellence establishing new casinos,” said Larry Claunch, chairman of One Hundred Sands, in a news release issued by the prime minister’s office.
In a telephone interview, Claunch said he and the tribe have been talking for about five months, and while the tribe hasn’t yet put any money into the deal, they are negotiating the tribe’s financial stake. The tribe has committed to joining the venture as a partner, Claunch said, and will have ownership in the casino, as well as an active advisory role.
“They are going to be advising us on very aspect of casino management,” said Claunch, a retired developer of retirement homes who moved to Fiji from Salem, Ore., about 10 years ago.
He said the conversations got started with Snoqualmie tribal administrator Matt Mattson first, when Mattson traveled to Fiji and investigated the possibilities.
The new venture is a long way — nearly 6,000 miles — from the tribe’s casino, which opened in 2008 with a $330 million debt. The tribe swung open the doors right at the bottom of the recession and in the middle of one of the worst winters in years. The tribe’s budget, built on rosier expectations, cratered.
The tribe has since restructured its debt, and the casino is doing better, reports by outside analysts show, and its bond rating has improved.
And now the tribe apparently has new business prospects. Fresh from his seaplane, Claunch said Wednesday he would be joining Tribal Chairwoman Shelley Burch and her brother Pat Barker, a hereditary chief for the tribe, for dinner. The two are in Fiji to continue talks about the tribe’s stake in the business, he said. Neither would return calls for comment, and neither did Mattson.
Claunch said he beat out more than 50 other competitors for the sole gambling license granted by the Fijian government, in part he said because of his inclusion of a Native American tribe in the venture. He said that was important to him personally, because he liked the operations tribes run in the United States. Of the Snoqualmies, he said, “I have visited their casino and it’s spectacular, I so admire the work they have done.”
Paxton Myers, chief of staff for the National Indian Gaming Commission, said the federal agency only regulates Indian gambling on U.S. trust land, so the venture is outside of U. S. regulatory purview. The Washington State Gambling Commission has no jurisdiction over the venture, either.
The news, first reported in the Fiji Times, was controversial back in Washington state.
“It’s hurting our tribe; it’s pretty sad,” said Kanium Ventura, elected to the tribal council in September 2007. He was later suspended by the council in an internal dispute, a move later overturned by the tribal court, but then renewed by the tribal council again.
“They are supposed to take this to the membership,” Ventura said. “There is no benefits for us at Fiji; I don’t think it will make much.”
Some Washington state tribal leaders were surprised by the news.
“In Fiji! Wow. That’s interesting,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Indian Gaming Association and chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
“I’m delighted for them. Extending outside your reservation comfort zone is unique.”
He said he had expected the tribe to invest in a resort at its existing casino, not enter a new venture.
Other tribes have looked at gambling operations in other locations, including the Muckleshoot, which for a time looked into partnering in a tribally owned casino in Las Vegas — before dropping the idea.
But the Snoqualmies are believed to be the first tribe in Washington, and perhaps the country, Allen said, to enter into a gambling operation overseas. “It makes you scratch your head a little bit,” Allen said.
Allen said his tribe has successfully launched businesses outside Washington state, including a health - and medical-supply company in California and a construction corporation that works all over the country. But the tribe has never worked up a partnership or investment outside the United States.
“We’d be pretty conservative about that. When you are so far removed, it can cause you some concern.”
The latest move by the Snoqualmies comes at a time when the tribe is struggling with other issues, including an enrollment audit in response to allegations that many tribal members, including some of its leaders, don’t meet the one-eighth blood-quantum requirement in the tribe’s constitution to be Snoqualmie.
The tribe less than a year ago spent $14 million to buy out the contract of its former casino CEO’s employment contract.
The first phase of the Fiji project will include a luxury resort and casino with 500 slot machines, convention center and banquet facilities.
In a prepared statement, Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama said the venture “provides a malleable fusion between the Western ideas of casino gaming with the strong cultural values of tribal and community life.”
Groundbreaking is proposed in March, 2012.