WIND RIVER RESERVATION — Zombie faces stare at visitors from machines studded with flashing lights and glowing panels at a newly renovated casino on the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming.
The games are part of an effort to draw more visitors at a time when the local economy is suffering from plummeting mineral revenue, which has been a drag on the entire state.
Earlier in the decade, royalties from mining on the reservation brought in between $20 million and $30 million annually, but as oil and gas prices drop, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe is looking to the Shoshone Rose Casino — which held a grand reopening last month — to bring overnight visitors and their dollars to the reservation.
The original Shoshone Rose opened nine years ago and has been expanding ever since, said marketing manager Mary Johnson. But the renovation completed in October brought a hotel to the casino, allowing overnight visitors for the first time.
“We’re going to be able to bring conferences from all over,” said general manager Sheila Matt. Matt was brought in earlier this year from a similar job in Montana.
Matt said improved flights to the Riverton airport, along with the casino’s expansion, would help attract groups from around the Mountain West to spend money on the reservation.
But the Shoshone Rose is not the only hotel and casino on the reservation. The Wind River Hotel and Casino, owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe, is just down the road. It is larger and opened its hotel several years ago, but Matt said the Shoshone Rose hoped to compete with attention to detail and unique gaming machines.
On a tour of the 61-room, hotel Matt points out a bathtub featuring jets.
“Look at those bathrooms,” Matt said. “That’s how we differentiate.”
There are other small touches. The metal cage guarding the cashiers on the gaming floor was sculpted to follow the path of the Wind River.
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(Johnson didn’t seem worried that the artful bars looked easy to climb through: “Really anything you can put a hand in — if you have a gun...,” she trailed off.)
Wood pillars supporting parts of the roof were logged from the Wind River mountains and crafted with chainsaws by Eastern Shoshone members. Art in many of the hotel rooms is done by tribal artists.
“You look around and you find something new every single day,” Matt said.
Matt said she doesn’t have revenue predictions yet, but the nation presumably expects to recoup the millions borrowed to expand the casino and then some. Future plans include an RV park and events center — all focused on bringing in more people and keeping them at the complex longer.
In addition to the casino and mineral leases, Matt said the nation also owned a nursing home and expected to earn revenue from developing land it recently purchased in nearby Riverton.
The casino and hotel employ 133 workers, Matt said. Around half are enrolled Eastern Shoshone members, and members of other nations from neighboring states are represented too.
Those jobs are valuable on a reservation that has historically seen high unemployment numbers and few private businesses offering work. The Eastern Shoshone have around 4,300 enrolled members.
“We want tribal employment,” Matt said. “We want to make sure that they succeed.”
For now Matt is focused on getting out the word about the renovated casino and attracting first-time visitors. Aside from the hotel, additions included an indoor pool and an outside fire pit area — features Matt thinks will draw events like graduation parties and weddings to the casino.
“In the smaller casino 80 percent of our business came from within a 20-mile radius,” Matt said. “We really want to hit the Rock Springs market, the Casper market.”