Town of Dinosaur still working with tribe to build casino in Northwest Colorado
Steamboat Springs — An official with the town of Dinosaur said residents there are well aware of the proposal for a casino 107 miles east in Routt County, but they are continuing to move forward with building an Indian gaming facility of their own.
Dinosaur mayor pro-tem Richard Blakley said town officials approached the nearby Northern Ute Indian Tribe in May 2011 about building a casino in the town on U.S. Highway 40 just east of the Utah-Colorado border.
“A whole lot of red tape to get where we are today,” Blakley said.
More than a year after approaching the tribe, the project still is in the early phases of what can be a long, expensive and difficult process that needs public support, approvals from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the blessing of Colorado’s governor.
“When you’re working with government, it takes time,” said Blakley, who owns the B & B Restaurant on the east end of Dinosaur.
Members of the Sleeping Giant Group in Routt County also are in the midst of the long process that could lead to a casino being built near Yampa Valley Regional Airport. The group has held community meetings and completed economic impact and feasibility studies, but its leaders say they are yet to approach an Indian tribe about casino ownership.
Sleeping Giant Group partner Steve Hofman said during a recent community meeting in Craig that he doesn’t think the region could support two casinos, and his group questions the feasibility of the Dinosaur project.
“The challenge that Dinosaur is going to face is are they going to have a large enough casino and investors to pay the cost of the regulatory review process?” Hofman said.
He went on to say that “there can only be one casino in this area.”
Blakley dismissed any notion that the Dinosaur project isn’t feasible. He said it still is undetermined how it would be financed, but it could include a partnership between the town and the Northern Utes.
“Nothing’s been ironed out on that,” Blakley said.
Dinosaur eyes benefits
Steve Light, political scientist and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law & Policy at the University of North Dakota, told the Steamboat Today last month that it has become increasingly common for non-tribal groups to approach tribes about building a casino off reservation. It also has become common for tribes to look for off-reservation sites because they tend to be closer to better markets and more populated areas. In both cases, success has been minimal because of the public support necessary and the regulatory hurdles involved with getting an off-reservation approved, Light said. That has been the case with the Northern Utes, who have approached multiple communities since the mid-1990s to build a casino in Northwest Colorado. The desire to build a casino in Colorado exists because the Northern Utes are located across the border in Utah, where along with Hawaii, gambling of all types still is illegal.
Initial attempts by the Northern Utes to build a casino in Northwest Colorado in the 1990s did not go over well with residents during community meetings.
Blakley said he attended one of those community meetings in Craig in the mid-1990s and said he was embarrassed by the way tribe representatives were treated by residents. Officials have said the tribe was received similarly during a meeting in Hayden when a casino was proposed in 1999.
That’s one reason Blakley is surprised there might be increased community support for a casino in Hayden.
“Now all of the sudden it has risen out of the dust,” Blakley said. “I guess now they see that it could be a good thing. I have mixed feelings about that.”
If Dinosaur’s 350 residents were able to vote on the issue today, Blakley thinks they’d support the casino. He said some are against it because they foresee negative impacts and generally don’t want a casino in their community, but town officials think it will benefit the community. Blakley said fees paid by the tribe in lieu of taxes from the casino could allow the local residents to have access to natural gas, and the town could invest money in schools, police and fire services.
“We battle on just having ambulance service around here,” he said.
Blakley said the town committed to splitting the cost of a casino feasibility study with the Northern Utes. He said the study was completed and showed a casino could have revenues of $50 million per year after four years of operation.
“It came out real promising,” said Blakley, who added the tribe has yet to bill the town for its portion of the study costs.
Blakley said the tribe now is in the process of securing land for the site, and attorneys working for the tribe are preparing for the approval process.
“It’s in their ballpark now,” Blakley said.
Repeated attempts throughout several weeks to contact Northern Ute officials have been unsuccessful.
Gaming in Colorado
The Northern Utes are one of the three Ute tribes that have been identified by the Sleeping Giant Group as likely having historical ties to the land adjacent to YVRA where the proposed casino would be built. Sleeping Giant Group partner Johnny Spillane said other tribes outside of Colorado may have ties to the area, as well. The ancestral tie needs to exist for the U.S. Department of Interior to put the off-reservation land into a trust that would allow for the building of an Indian-owned casino.
Besides the Northern Utes, the two other Ute tribes identified by the Sleeping Giant Group as potential casino owners are in southwestern Colorado.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is headquartered in Ignacio and operates the Sky Ute Casino and Resort about 25 miles southeast of Durango. Indian casino revenues are not disclosed, but the Durango Herald newspaper reported in 2003 that the casino contributed 8 or 9 percent in revenues to the tribe’s budget.
“An insignificant amount of gaming revenue contributes to the tribe’s wealth,” said Charley Flagg, current interim general manager at the Sky Ute Casino.
The Sky Ute Casino is on the reservation and opened in 1993, three years after Colorado residents voted to allow limited gaming. Colorado Division of Gaming spokesperson Cameron Lewis said that vote opened the door to Indian-owned casinos in Colorado but was focused on providing economic opportunities for the towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. Commercial casinos in Colorado are limited to those locations.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe operates the only other Indian-owned casino in Colorado. The Ute Mountain Casino opened in 1992 and is located near Towaoc, about 10 miles south of Cortez.
The Northern Utes have had a desire to open a casino in Colorado, but their business operations already include energy, oil and gas companies. According to the tribe’s website, it has the second-largest reservation in the United States, covering 4.5 million acres, and more than half of the tribe’s 3,157 members live on the reservation.
Blakley said representatives from the Northern Utes are aware of the proposal to build a casino at YVRA, but the tribe has not been contacted directly about the project.
For now, Blakley said the Northern Utes seem intent on working with the town of Dinosaur to build its casino.
“They keep telling me that no one else has approached them about anything else,” Blakley said. “I feel that so far, as far as I can see, they are committed to working with us.”
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com
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