Rows of machines slurp up dollar bills like a kid eating spaghetti.
Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. One hollers as it pays a bounty of nickels.
Three years ago, the Kootenai Indian Tribe had eight video slot machines tucked against a wall at the tribal owned Kootenai River Inn.
Now the remodeled hotel is stuffed with 181 of the jackpot-spewing boxes. On weekends the inn is jammed with Canadians, travelers and locals hoping to win big.
The Kootenai Tribe already has.
Its gaming venture earns about $100,000 profit annually for the 150 tribal members.
“The gaming has been very profitable and a positive step for the tribe, but this is not our future,” said tribal chairman Velma Bahe.
Instead, the tribe sees gaming profits as seed money. A way to launch other businesses and foster tribal economic development.
“The gaming is helping us buy back our land. It’s helping our people stay off welfare and it’s giving our people an education and jobs,” said Dianne David, a tribal council member. “But the gaming is not going to last.”
The consensus of the tribe is that state and federal government will tighten gaming regulations and possibly shut down Indian gaming altogether. Tribe vice chairman Ron Abraham said state legislation is expected next year from gambling opponents.
“Indians finally found a way to put revenues into the tribes’ coffers and now people are saying, ‘It’s too much. We didn’t expect you guys to get rich off it,”’ he said. “In the meantime, we have to take this ball, run with it and go as far as we can while we can.”
Bahe (pronounced Baa-hee) and other council members are due to meet with Idaho Gov. Phil Batt on June 20. Each Idaho tribe has an hour to talk strictly about gaming.
“We know Idaho has some strong voices against gaming and we want to know what is going to be allowed, maybe negotiate what is best for both parties,” Bahe said.
Unlike with some other tribes, the Kootenais gaming profits are not doled out in checks to members. The money goes to pay off debts for expansion work at the Inn, and to the tribe’s social programs, such as help for the elderly, education programs and to the medical clinic.
The money also is used to buy land. The Kootenais secured only a 12.5-acre reservation. In the last few years the tribe has bought more than 300 acres of farm land.
About 40 percent of the gaming profits is invested.
“If the gaming goes, we will have a pot to get something else started,” Ron Abraham said.
The tribe has tried to start other business ventures. Members went to state lawmakers the last two years to get a tax exemption and a parcel of land declared as tribal property. The idea was to open a grocery store, but lawmakers and the Bonners Ferry community objected to the idea.
“We are going to keep trying to line up something that can take the place of gaming,” said council member Dixie Abraham. “But I don’t think it matters what kind of business we would have, there are a lot of people here who wouldn’t support it or us.”
In the meantime, the tribe will continue to market its casino.
Billboards are mounted near Coeur d’Alene and the Canadian border. Jackpots have been advertised in Idaho, Washington and Montana. Last week about 30 machines were converted to only accept and pay out Canadian money.
“It goes without saying, the machines have been very profitable. Our room occupancy has shot through the roof,” said Tom Turpin, the inn’s general manager.
The venture has created about 25 new jobs at the Inn where 30 percent of the 90 employees are tribal members.
In May, the inn paid out $1.2 million in cash to winners. Over Memorial Day, 1,500 people packed the hotel for a chance to win a $28,000 car. The crowds are driving jackpots to record levels, including one for $77,000 waiting to be won.
Gaming also helps other businesses in town, Turpin said. People are stopping in Bonners Ferry when they used to drive on to resort towns, like Sandpoint or to Montana to gamble.
“The gaming stops them. It has made us more of a destination town,” he said. “It’s a positive addition to the community, but there are always those who don’t want this kind of industry.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo; Map of area
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