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Tribe Turns Hall Into Virtual Vegas Coeur D’Alenes’ Little Bingo Hall Has Evolved Into Big-Time Business

Dozens of people sat, entranced, their faces lighted up by the flashing and winking of the gambling machines before them.

“Change?” A worker drifted through the players. “Anyone need change?”

A woman glanced up and pulled out a bill.

“Can you change a $100 bill?” she asked.

Of course.

On Sunday, hundreds of bingo players and video gamblers ambled through the welcoming double doors of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s “bingo casino” 20 miles south of Coeur d’Alene.

Bob and Bonnie Powers, a retired Spokane couple, brought friends visiting from Fairbanks, Alaska.

“We’re showing them around, letting them spend their cotton-picking money,” said Bob Powers, as his wife fed another dollar into the machine.

Three years ago Wednesday, the casino opened, operating three days a week. There was bingo and one “video pull-tab” machine, similar to a slot machine.

Profits that first year were a relatively meager $60,000.

“We barely broke even,” said gaming director Dave Matheson, a tribal member.

Today, the casino’s success surprises even the tribe. The gambling mecca is now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Last year, $30 million worth of 5s, 10s and 20s - and 100s - flowed through the casino, earning the Coeur d’Alenes a profit of $3.1 million. This year, the tribe will pay off its Bureau of Indian Affairs mortgage on the building - a dozen years early.

The high-stakes bingo games draw crowds of nearly a thousand players from as far away as Lewiston; the Tri-Cities; Kalispell, Mont.; and Calgary, Alberta.

“When your kids are all grown and you have nothing to do, it’s great,” said Bev Erickson, a 68-year-old player from Spokane. She said she’ll often spend $140 in one day, playing from noon to 10 p.m. Last weekend, she said, she won $2,000.

“What Spokane bingo halls haven’t come to yet is the atmosphere,” Erickson said. “The people here are very happy. When I started coming here, I quit playing in town completely.”

In January 1995, the move paid off in a big way. Thanks to lucky O-64, she won a $31,000 game.

“The whole place jumped up in the air,” she said. “I think I darn near died. Everyone was jumping and screaming.”

Across the building, dozens of other gamblers stared into their video machines. Today, where there was once a single machine, now there are 300, with up to 100 more expected by the end of the year. The machines, which started as an experiment, now rake in twice as much money as bingo.

“Bingo is kind of boring,” said a Spokane truck driver, watching his girlfriend play a video game. “She loves it because it reminds her of Vegas.”

The trucker, who said the couple will often spend $200 a day gambling, declined to give his name.

“I don’t want anybody to know I’m a gambler,” he said.

The tribe still has some reservations about economic development though gambling, said Matheson. But until now, nothing else on the reservation has provided so many jobs and so much money.

“The virtues here so greatly out-number the vices that it’s a no-brainer. The choices are opportunity or despair,” he said. “The bingo hall has meant a lot to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe - jobs, revenue, services, hopefully extending the lives of our elders.”

More than 90 people, most of them Indians, work at the casino. Many were unemployed before.

Leonard Tomaskin was a seasonal worker, fighting forest fires in Nevada, until he was hired at the bingo casino. The 34-year-old man sells bingo cards and collects money.

“Before I started working here, I never had a car,” he said. “Now I have a car and we’re renting to own a home.”

Tomaskin also met his wife, Tamara, at the casino. She works in the kitchen.

In December, the tribe sent each member $300 from casino profits.

“A lot of people who have never had a decent Christmas had a good Christmas,” said Matheson. “They finally got to enjoy that part of America.”

If all the profits were divided among tribal members, every man, woman and child in the tribe would get about $2,135. Instead, the tribal council is investing most of the profits in scholarships, economic development, youth programs and care for the elderly.

If the tribe gets its way, casino money would pale in comparison to a massive National Indian Lottery in 37 states. The high-stakes telephone lottery would earn the tribe hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

So far, the lottery has been stymied by threats of lawsuits or criminal prosecution by numerous state attorneys general, who maintain the game would be illegal in their states.

But the Coeur d’Alenes recently won a decision in tribal court, clearing the way for telecommunications giant AT&T; to hook up the phone lines and begin the game.

The tribe hopes to start the game this year, although more court battles are likely.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos