What Happened

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For the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, their past history with gaming is the stuff that film dramas are made of. The story goes back to the mid-1970s and a man named Bob Satiacum.

It was then that Puyallup tribal member Satiacum established himself as an entrepreneur with his cigarette-liquor-gambling empire on land where the tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino is today, among his other business ventures. Over the ensuing decades, though, he became more and more entangled in lawsuits and allegations of serious crimes, resulting in frequent raids, arrests and court suits. Much of his legal troubles came from selling items, especially bootlegged cigarettes, without taking in or paying taxes. On May 5, 1976, Satiacum and four of his employees were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of operating an illegal gambling business. 

While seeking a seat on the Puyallup Tribal Council in 1976, Satiacum announced that he planned to share profits from his enterprises with all the members of his tribe – a precursor to the tribe’s per-capita program that would follow decades later. At the same time, tribal council chairwoman Ramona Bennett, up for re-election, also announced financial help for the tribe through a smoke shop that she owned with two other tribal members. Bennett defeated Satiacum in that council race, but years later Satiacum would win a council seat and be named chairman – for a while, anyway. In April 1982, he was ousted as chairman for allegedly arranging a contract murder attempt on Bennett. A single shot from a passing car narrowly missed Bennett, and Satiacum was arrested along with three other men and charged with racketeering, extortion, arson and conspiracy to murder. 

That same year, U.S. District Court Judge Walter T. McGovern ordered Satiacum to remove his smoke shop, gambling operations and other questionable businesses from Puyallup tribal land that the judge said Satiacum was occupying illegally. The judge issued a preliminary injunction against Satiacum in a lawsuit brought against him by the tribe and tribal council that accused him of occupying the land by force without having signed a lease. 

With these legal problems, and more, facing him, Satiacum fled to Canada. He remained there as a fugitive for nearly nine years before being arrested in 1991 for failing to appear for sentencing in a child molestation conviction. Satiacum died that same year from a heart attack. 

More gaming intrigue occurred in the late 1970s when Puyallup Tribal Chairwoman Bertha Turnipseed and two others were sentenced to 60 days in jail on charges of operating a gambling casino in Fife before gaming was legalized on the Puyallup reservation. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had its eye on the tribe as well, rescinding the tribe’s line of credit in 1982 due to the tribe’s failure to provide required reports, invoices and other financial documentation of how monies were spent. The same occurred with the federal Department of Health and Human Services following an audit on the tribe’s health facilities that found $650,000 in federal health funds spent but not accounted for.

LAND CLAIMS SETTLEMENT BRINGS BIG MONEY

Once the Puyallup Tribe secured its Land Claims Settlement in 1990, thoughts turned to developing its newly secured, and highly valuable, property on Tacoma’s growing waterfront. Federal, state and local governments paid $8 million in cash and land for the tribe to give up claims to valuable acreage, which in turn provided the tribe with money to make capital investments in projects that would certainly benefit from the bustling Interstate 5 coursing right through their reservation. Visions of gaming came to fruition as a way to bring big money to the tribe, and with it a certain amount of political clout that would soon impact county, city and state politics at numerous levels. 

First, the tribe invested $2 million to open a bingo hall in 1992 and, with the help of pull-tabs, raked in a reported $250,000 to $300,000 a month. Located near a freeway off-ramp, Tacoma leaders were concerned about traffic safety around the establishment and worked with the tribe to extend an additional access road to the hall. This created a convenient free flow of patrons and helped the bingo hall’s financial success to grow quickly. 

It wasn’t long before tribal leaders put their heads together to focus on ways to make more money by venturing into the casino industry. However, not everyone in the general public was convinced that bringing gambling to Tacoma was a good idea. Some had moral objections while others voiced concerns about organized crime and general seediness creeping into the city. Nevertheless, the tribe moved forward with its plans and signed a gaming compact with the state in 1996. A year later, the Emerald Queen Casino opened, not on land but rather on an authentic Mississippi paddlewheel riverboat christened the “Emerald Queen.” The riverboat remains moored on the Blair Waterway to this day, although now it is a shadow of its former self as it sits quietly at the tribe’s port property that has still hasn’t been developed despite development happening around it.

With the Emerald Queen’s prosperity showing no signs of abatement, sharing the wealth with the tribal membership became big news in 2002. At a general membership meeting with tribal members and the council present, then-Chairman Bill Sterud, who was up for re-election, made the sudden announcement for the membership to take a vote then and there on whether or not they wanted to start receiving $2,000 a month in per-capita payouts. His political move took the rest of the council completely off guard, as he didn’t prep or inform them beforehand. And with a resounding “yes” from the membership, the per-cap increase was installed.

While other casino-owning tribes in Washington State weren’t so eager to institute a per-cap system for fear of creating a welfare state among their memberships, the Puyallup tribe eschewed the social effects of paying its membership $24,000 a year. This brought its own set of problems that continue to this day particularly among tribal youth and their “18 money,” the lump sum collected throughout their lifetime that they receive when they turn 18 years of age. Stories are common of these young people going through their windfall in less than a year, spending rather than investing, and being sponged off of by family and friends. 

Less than 10 years after opening for business, the EQC riverboat’s future came into question when Port of Tacoma officials announced plans to open a new container port on the Blair waterway for shipping giant Evergreen. This meant that the main road to the casino would have to be closed. The tribe could either legally challenge the port’s plans or convince the state to change its rule allowing casinos on trust land only and let the tribe open a casino on the reservation right away and then start the trust process on the property. In an historic move, the state sided with the tribe and allowed the tribe to open its new casino where it wanted it to be. The tribe purchased a Best Western Hotel and Conference Center just off I-5 in Fife and opened the new EQC-Fife in 2005. The EQC-Tacoma came soon after. 

Originally, tribal leaders announced plans to construct a completely new casino rather than renovate an already existing structure, but it never came to pass despite the considerable hype. “It will be the nicest gaming facility on the West Coast,” EQC general manager Frank Wright told “Indian Gaming Business” magazine in 2004. Then-tribal Chairman Bill Sterud said that this new casino would “diversify our economy and bring in international trade and banking and other areas like that,” which did not occur. 

Slated to sit on 28 acres, the Cascades Resort and Casino, as it was called, would include:

  • A lush outdoor landscaped area with water falls, running streams, ponds and native flora and fauna
  • A 12-story, 246 key hotel tower of 218,851 square feet enclosing a 10-story atrium; a lobby/guest registration area with rock and aquarium features; executive and business office space; an 11,000 square foot day spa and exercise area; indoor/outdoor pool
  • A low-rise casino of 449,839 square feet adjacent to the tower; three themed restaurants, buffet restaurant and fast food restaurant; retail space; aquariums, water features, running water streams, sky ceiling, sculptures and a themed environment depicting the heritage and customs of the Puyallup tribe.

With its $275 million price tag, the Cascades Resort and Casino fizzled out on its promise to be the largest casino operation on the West Coast. Tribal leaders then sought a scaled-down casino plan that they spent a lot of money to have researched and designed but it too never came to pass.

THE PER-CAP QUANDARY

In 2002, the tribal population stood at approximately 2,600 members. Today that number has grown to more than 6,000 resulting in $144,000,000 a year that the casinos must bring in just to maintain the per-cap system. Simple math shows that this cost will only go up and up as the Puyallup population grows exponentially. This is one reason why the tribal council is investing $370 million to build a bigger and better casino now set to open this March. 

Keeping one step ahead of per-cap payouts is just part of the problem; keeping one step ahead of casino competition is the other. In a feasibility study done for the tribe by gaming consultant group GVA Marquette Advisors, it states that the Puyallup tribe’s casinos have locational disadvantages due to the Snoqualmie, Tulalip and Muckleshoot casinos being more proximate to the more affluent Seattle-area population base. “…the EQC share of the Tacoma-area and south Seattle market is threatened if the tribe does not improve the quality level of its facilities,” the study advises. “The quality of the recommended gaming and hotel complex should be at least equal to and preferably superior to that of primary competitors….” With the Puyallup’s new Portland Avenue casino being built in an area with a high population of homeless people and those who choose to live on the streets, along with a noteworthy crime rate, time will tell whether patrons will choose the EQC over other local casinos.      

In another 2016 study, done by Pro Forma Advisors LLC, the group found that “visitation to the existing I-5 casino is strongly locals oriented, with a relatively low casino win per visit and very little high-end play. These dynamics are attributed to several factors including the condition of the existing property, the lack of updated amenities to be comped, and the lack of robust player spending data on which to base a more robust comping program.” The Puyallup Tribal Council has so far resisted instituting any kind of player tracking system. 

The tribe relies on additional income from its dozen gas stations and sales of tobacco, alcohol and cannabis. Where alcohol is concerned, for the Puyallup tribe or any Medicine Creek Treaty tribe to deal in alcohol is in direct conflict with the Medicine Creek Treaty. It states: “…any Indian belonging to said tribes, who is guilty of bringing liquor into said reservations, or who drinks liquor, may have his or her proportion of the annuities withheld from him or her for such time as the President may determine,” annuities referring to the $32,500 that was distributed among the Medicine Creek Treaty tribes in concurrence with the treaty.

In what was supposed to be a confidential 2009 analysis of both EQC locations done by Lamar Associates, a security investigative firm based in Washington, D.C., the firm was severely critical of the casinos. The Associated Press reported that auditors found that the casinos were mismanaged, with poor employee morale, inadequate security and dismal ambience. The report also found that the EQC threw away approximately $40 million a year in revenue. According to audit findings as reported by the Associated Press, in 2007 both casinos’ gross revenue totaled $275.5 million, $79.5 million less than what auditors said the casinos should have earned – the net profit should have been $40 million higher, according to the report. EQC general manager Frank Wright nearly lost his job over this, with the tribal council vote split 3-3 on his removal until the tribal chairman cast the deciding vote for Wright to keep his position. 

While tribal leaders state that the EQC pours millions of dollars into the local economy, there is no proof on paper of this actually happening. In fact, looking at it from a taxpayer’s point of view, the casino costs residents money in infrastructure and road construction costs, such as the reconfigured exits off of Interstate 5 that lead right to the EQC. Delays in roads work have also resulted in increased costs, as the state negotiates with the tribe for right-of-way and other issues. Now Sound Transit is investing $158 million for Link light rail stations near the EQC that would, in effect, provide a shuttle service to the casino, with the station sites being conveniently located on property owned by Chad Wright, CEO of the tribe’s Marine View Ventures. There is no financial reimbursement by the tribe on any transit project. 

As the tribe moves closer to opening its new “Vegas-style” casino that’s still under construction, through certain sources who did not want to be named for fears of repercussions, the Tacoma Weekly has learned of possible construction work slowdowns due to money still owed to electrical system contractors – more than $7 million. With the casino’s grand opening originally scheduled for this month, no new opening date has been announced. 

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