Puyallup tribal leadership unveils new casino plans to city council

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The Puyallup Tribe is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into what will replace its current Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma. A permanent structure, it will replace the temporary ones that have served as a facility for gaming, dining, concerts and sports in the heart of the Tribe’s reservation where Portland Avenue meets Interstate 5.

Tacoma City Council received an update on the project during its study session on July 24. Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud spoke about the Tribe long wanting a major destination-type resort on this property. He mentioned that plans were unveiled 15 years ago, but were put on hold as the Tribe pursued other projects, including buying a hotel in Fife and a building on Portland Avenue for its administration home. “The timing just was not right then,” he remarked.

But it is now. The first phase of the project is the parking garage sitting alongside the freeway. Next up is a $310 million casino, scheduled to open in December 2019. Strerud spoke of the new casino’s ability to be a tourist destination. He thinks it can tap into some of the large amount of people who visit Seattle on vacation or business.

Tribal Council Vice Chairman David Bean discussed how the need for the new facility is a result of the current one exceeding its useful life.

He mentioned information from Forbes, published in February, listing Seattle as the fastest-growing city in the United States and Tacoma at number 10. “We see an opportunity to capture new revenue sources,” he observed.

It is designed to straddle East 29th Street. An area with a bar and buffet will be elevated above the street. Other sections will offer a 24-hour café and a sports bar and deli. The size of the casino will be 310,000 square feet. The event center will take up another 21,000 square feet. It will have 2,000 seats.

EQC General Manager Frank Wright briefly discussed passage of the Indian Gaming Act and the Tribe’s entry into gaming in the 1990s. At that time, for the Tribe to establish a major casino it would have required outside investors and managers, who would have received payback in the neighborhood of 40 percent of the profit. The Tribe was not interested and opted to go smaller, he explained. The Tribe is legally prohibited from using its land as collateral for a loan, so it put its casino on the water. The showboat was purchased in the South and sailed through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to a spot on Tribal land along Blair Waterway. It served as the original EQC until 2004. Expansion of Blair Waterway caused the closure of part of Alexander Avenue, the main road to the location. The Tribe bought the Best Western Hotel in Fife and turned it into its second casino.

The operation at the I-5 site in Tacoma used to be the bingo hall. The casino expanded around this in several structures. “A lot of people do not realize these are just tents,” Wright said of the current I-5 EQC.

The new casino allows the Tribe to achieve the type of destination resort its leaders have envisioned for many years. “It will have everything we could have dreamed of,” Wright declared. “It is going to be fantastic.”

Brett Ewing, a principal with Cuningham Group Architecture, discussed highlights of the design. The building will have views in every direction, from Mount Rainier to downtown. It will have much natural light, something not experienced in many casinos.

A black and gray material on much of the exterior is inspired by designs on traditional tribal baskets, Ewing explained. The high-limit gaming area will have carved wood features at the entrance.

The next phase would be the hotel, slated for 150 to 200 rooms. It would cost $65 million and include a spa, rooftop restaurant and conference rooms. The estimated opening date would be in December 2020.

Several City Council members took a tour of the construction site on July 20. Councilmember Catherine Ushka was on the tour and referred to it as “an extraordinary space.”

Councilmember Justin Camarata said the future hotel will help the city, which needs more hotel room capacity to draw events to its convention center.

“I am blown away, to be honest with you,” said Councilmember Chris Beale. “This is going to be an awesome facility.”

Puyallup Councilman Tim Reynon told the Tacoma Weekly, “We can’t wait to open the doors and welcome everyone to what will undoubtedly be a spectacular gaming and entertainment experience. Our goal has been to provide our guests with a better-than-Vegas experience here in Tacoma and with the help and input of our tribal community, our staff, and leadership of our project team, we are confident that we will accomplish this goal. I’m particularly proud of the input our members had on the development of this new casino. They were really clear that they wanted our culture and artwork reflected in the project and that when our guests entered our casino, they would know they were visiting the Puyallup Tribe, the “welcoming and generous people.”

Reynon said that the development of this new casino will significantly impact the community for generations to come, not only for the Tribe, but for the surrounding community as well.

“It will provide us with the resources we need to take care of our members, while at the same time allowing us to explore new ways to diversify our tribal economy. It will provide jobs for our members and our neighbors. It will provide resources that will allow us to help our neighboring communities and local jurisdictions provide important services to their citizens. It will literally be a shining beacon and an exciting gathering place for everyone in the Northwest and we can’t wait to open our doors and welcome them to our home.”

For newly elected Councilwoman Anna Bean, seeing the new casino grow and blossom has deep meaning for her seeing as she has worked in the casino from the very beginning.

“To have been at the Emerald Queen from the riverboat and to watch us grow and for me to be here when such a big thing is getting ready to occur is amazing – to think of where we’ve been and where we’re going is just amazing.”

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