Is ‘The Boat’ back?

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The Puyallup Tribe of Indians may be developing ideas of taking its former riverboat casino back into operation. File photo

New levels of activity have been seen recently at the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen riverboat on Alexander Avenue, generating interest in whether the tribe intends to bring it back for gaming once again.

Opened in spring 1997 on property that the tribe procured in the Land Claims Settlement of 1988, the Emerald Queen was the tribe’s first foray into gaming. But less than 10 years later, the waterfront casino closed to make way for the Port of Tacoma to develop the area into a deep-water container port, which never happened. The riverboat was supposed to be moved as part of the plan, but it stayed and ever since then has been kept in good condition pending future use.
Now, that future may have come. Activity has stepped up around the boat, with word circulating that it will be opened up again as a Class II facility with virtual gaming as well. Work crews have been taking measurements and doing other light site work, and the occupants of the shore-side building next door have been asked to vacate by the first of January. Work on the riverboat appears to be underway through a private investor out of Idaho, with Puyallup Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud known to have been talking to private investors in that state.

In addition, former Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel CEO Dave Matheson, who has Puyallup tribal family members, may also be involved. According to the Spokesman-Review newspaper, in 2006 the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel fired Matheson then the Coeur d’Alene tribe sued him, accusing him of paying unauthorized severance of $684,000 to the casino’s former chief operating officer and employees could not provide documentation to auditors for nearly $340,000 charged to the casino’s credit card. The tribe dropped their lawsuit in 2007 and rehired Matheson as CEO in 2011 but the tribe did not renew his contract in 2016.

Interestingly, bingo at the riverboat would directly compete with another gaming facility owned by an individual Puyallup tribal member that is unique in the country – BJ’s Bingo in Fife, as the Puyallup Tribe receives a percentage of BJ’s income. Additionally, work on the riverboat comes alongside continuing construction of the tribe’s new casino along I-5 in Tacoma. Slated for completion in 2019, the tribe says that the $370 million project will offer a Vegas-like experience in 110,000-square-feet of space.

Class II gaming is basically bingo and card games played exclusively against other players rather than against the house or a player acting as a bank. In a Class II facility, slot machines and similar electronic games are specifically excluded under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. In addition, Class II gaming is not regulated by the state, so the tribe would retain their authority to conduct, license and regulate their gaming operation without state involvement.

With Class II gaming facilities unregulated by the state, by operating a Class II facility, the Puyallup Tribe will be allowed to use as many machines as they desire. The tribe, through its compact with the state, is allowed – along with the Muckleshoot tribe and other large tribes – 4,000 Class III machines for their facilities. The tribe only owns a small portion of those machines and the rest of the machines are leased from other tribes. And it’s unlikely that the state would be willing to renegotiate the compact and provide the tribe with more machines.

As casinos grow throughout the state, the price of leasing Class III machines goes up and the availability for Class III leases goes down. This could put the Puyallup tribal casino short on the number of machines they need for their new casino currently under construction. In recent years, gaming trends show the decline in the play of slot machines in major areas like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Twenty years ago, there were a couple tribal casinos miles apart from each other. Now, there are many large casinos just a few miles apart from each other offering more variety and competition. As tribal needs expand, such as per-capitas payments made to each tribal member and other services provided, it becomes more and more vital that the Puyallups’ economic enterprises stay competitive and producing money.

The Puyallup Tribe gives out the largest dividend to its membership at $2,000 per month. Then this started, the tribal population was around 2,000 members and now that number is approaching 6,000. The math is simple and soon the lines will cross. Is the tribe producing enough revenue in order to keep up the generous contributions to its membership? This question is of great concern to the Puyallup membership, as a lot of them have been able to build good lives for themselves thank to receiving per-capita checks every month – owning homes and cars and having large families to support. The extra burden that the Puyallup Tribe faces may be the need to expand their gaming in order to accommodate the cost of their government.

Tacoma Weekly reached out to Tribal Council Member Sylvia Miller without response, and emails to the Tribe went unanswered.

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