The Tonto Apache Tribe unveiled plans to build a new casino and a 40-guestroom hotel Monday morning.
Mazatzal Casino Chief Executive Officer Jim Gannarelli said the project will be placed on the "fast track" with possible completion in 10 months. The addition will result in about 50 new jobs.
"The casino received approval from the tribal council last week that we are officially going ahead," Gannarelli said. "We do not have a contractor on board, but we do have a budget earmarked to see where we come out. We're not disclosing that number yet."
The current casino, which will be 9 years old in April, will be converted into an event, convention and meeting center.
"It will house gem shows, craft shows, gun shows, art shows -- those types of things," Gannarelli said.
While the new event center will be able to seat 500 for meetings and banquets, it will seat 1,000 theater style. The largest meeting facility in town is the current casino, which can only accommodate meetings of 240 people.
"It means we can also do a higher level of entertainment, much like Cliff Castle Casino (in Camp Verde) does with the second tier entertainers," Gannarelli said. "We can also do live boxing and wrestling."
The old bingo hall will be converted to office space.
The new casino will be built adjacent to the southeastern side of the current casino. At 45,000-square-feet, it will be 7,000-square-feet larger and feature 100 additional slot machines and an expanded blackjack area.
The additional slot machines will bring the total at the casino to 471, just shy of the 475 allowed by the state. The casino can have a maximum of 645 slot machines, but any over 475 must be purchased from other tribes.
In addition to a new casual restaurant and sports bar, the new casino will feature a fine dining restaurant.
The hotel will be contiguous to the new casino on the southeast side. Preliminary plans call for a three-story, all-suites facility with an enclosed swimming pool.
"There are no all-suites hotels up here with separate bedrooms," Gannarelli said. "All rooms will face the Mazatzal Mountains.
Probably about 20 of the 50 new jobs will be at the hotel. The other jobs will be in the event center or in the new casino.
Preliminary plans also call for additional parking. Since the facility will cross over the existing access road into the residential area of the reservation, a new access road will be built to the south.
The entire complex will be designed to incorporate the very latest water conservation technology.
"We're working closely with (Payson Public Works Director) Buzz Walker, and we want to be a kind of model for the new water conservation ordinance," Gannarelli said. "That's why we're limiting (the hotel) to 40 rooms. That's what the ordinance allows. We plan on using the most efficient water resources available. We want to be the top-of-the-line model for water conservation."
Even the existing facility will be converted to dry urinals and low-flush toilets.
The decision to expand was based on several factors.
"There are limitations with our current casino," Gannarelli said. "Basically we don't have an underground wiring and computer system for the slot machines, and our air conditioning is less than desirable. We also want to take better care of the smoke, so we've determined the best thing to do is to build a new casino area."
Mazatzal Casino will be the last of the rural casinos to expand, he said.
"This will put us on a par with San Carlos, Cliff Castle, Hon-Dah (in Pinetop) and Prescott," he said.
Boost to local economy
Gannarelli believes the new event center will have a positive impact on the economy.
"It should be a boon, because over the past 10 years Payson has lost a lot of festivals and events," he said. "One of the things I always do when I go into a community, and we've done it here, is to try and increase business for the locals.
"We're buying more locally than we used to; we're dealing with more local vendors than what we did maybe four years ago. Our contributions to local charities are up considerably over four or five years ago."
Despite the addition of a new hotel, Gannarelli believes the new complex will cause occupancy rates to increase throughout the Rim country.
"The Paysonglo (Lodge, which the Tonto Apaches own) has 47 rooms, so in total, the tribe will have 87 rooms," he said. "That won't be enough for the people who come up for shows and conventions, so it should increase business for everybody else."
On the drawing board
Preliminary discussions regarding the expansion have been going on for 10 months, Gannarelli said.
"It wasn't discussed prior to (the passage of) Proposition 202," he said. "It wouldn't make sense to spend the money if Proposition 202 didn't go through."
Proposition 202 is the gaming initiative approved by Arizona voters last November over several competing propositions, one of which would have allowed casino-type gaming at race tracks. With its passage the state and Arizona tribes entered into a new 20-year gaming compact.
The tribe has retained the services of Group West, a design firm based in Lynnwood, Wash.
"There are 20 casinos in Washington, and they've done quite a few of these sized facilities," Gannarelli said. "They also have a local affiliate, an architect in Phoenix."
The tribal council will meet with Group West and the new contractor Dec. 9 and 10 to finalize plans.