New Casino Manager Feeling Lucky

Winds of fate bring manager back to Payson

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Jim Gannarelli, the freshly installed general manager of the Mazatzal Casino, is not planning to make any major changes in the way Payson's second-largest private employer and first-largest payroll distributor conducts its business.

But expect to see lots of minor changes.

"I want to make the casino more personable, and there are a number of ways I think we can accomplish that," Gannarelli said. "We're going to develop a better complimentary policy, and an improved point system for the slot club membership, so there are more perks for everyone who comes here."

Those visitors will be the focus of any change you see, Gannarelli said.

"We hope to work on customer awareness, and on adding more fun things to help them think of Mazatzal as more of an entertainment center instead of just a casino. For example, while we're a little limited in terms of what we can do in the way of live performances, we do want to get more of those kinds of events in here. Maybe one or two a month ..."

There may be aesthetic changes as well.

"I'd also like to have an architect come in to look at freshening up the place visually. It's been the same since the day it opened. I think it's time for a new look ..."

What the casino's slot and bingo players will not see in the near or semi-distant future, Gannarelli said, are two long-discussed, long-delayed adjuncts to the business: an RV park and hotel, both of which have been put back to the discussion stage.

"Those plans were made with Capital Gaming, and now, the decision-making process has been affected," he said. "Capital Gaming did present plans for the hotel to the tribe, but the tribe decided to hold off, because they wanted to make more decisions on their own."

Gannarelli, 45, comes to his new job with plenty of casino experience and, more specifically, plenty of Native American-owned casino experience.

Born in Anniston, Ala., Gannarelli found himself in Phoenix at the age of 14, when his father retired from the military and moved the clan west. His career game plan then was to become a professional baseball pitcher until life threw him a curve ball and, as he describes it, "My arm blew out."

But Gannarelli had a back-up plan. He went on to collect accounting degrees, first from Glendale Community College, then Arizona State University.

Eventually, he relocated to Las Vegas in order to accept a position as an auditor for Del Webb's chain of hotels and casinos, which include the Sahara, the Mint and the Nevada Club. But two years later, when his father died, he returned to Phoenix to work as an auditor for Del Webb's whole, hugely varied corporation.

In 1986, England's Bass Brewing Co. helped pave the way to Arizona gaming by launching British-American Bingo in Phoenix. Gannarelli joined in as a chief financial officer, stayed for nine years, and was there when the company landed the first and original contract to manage the new, Apache-owned Mazatzal Casino in Payson.

That contract was carried out, though, by Capital Gaming, which bought British-American Bingo in 1993. As part of the sale, Gannarelli was sent to Payson to manage a small casino as Mazatzal was being built, and he was the enterprise's project manager until one month before it opened April 27, 1995.

But he moved on soon after, starting up his own consulting company for the gaming industry, and serving mostly Native-American clients.

Five years later April 28, 2000, to be precise Capital Gaming's management contract expired, and the casino's tribal owners had finally achieved their goal of complete management control. Gone that day was James McDermott, the general manager installed by Capital (whose contract had also expired), and in was the tribe's new hire: Jim Gannarelli.

"The tribe had asked me to come in and do an evaluation of the property before Capital Gaming left," he said, "and with Capital Gaming's departure, they offered me the job. Since I already knew them from five years ago, a mutual trust had already been established."

Gannarelli calls himself the casino's "permanent" manager, but he's quick to point out a caveat.

"The tribe's goal has always been to place as many tribal members as they can" in the casino's management positions, Gannarelli said. "But our managers have to be qualified. It takes five to 10 years to gain those qualifications for my position, and others within our infrastructure usually require three to six years. And they're getting close."

Currently, about 60 percent of the various management positions within Mazatzal in the gaming, retail, administration and maintenance ends of the business are filled by tribal members. "They haven't reached their goal yet," Gannarelli said, "but they're getting close."

When the job was offered to him, Gannarelli said it was not a proposition which required industrial-strength thought.

Why did he take the job?

"I'd worked with the tribe before, and they're a good group to work for," he said. "I've worked with many Native American tribes across the country, and I think they are one of the most consistent. I think they've handled their finances well, they work well within the community, and they want to expand."

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