THACKERVILLE — The Chickasaw Nation's WinStar casino in southern Oklahoma has begun construction to transform itself into a destination casino with a 400-room hotel, a convention center and a doubling of gaming space. WinStar plans to have the casino and convention center expansion complete by fall 2008. The 11-story hotel — to be owned and operated by a Chicago company on adjacent non-Indian land to the east — should be finished by 2009, tribal officials said. The expansion is expected to bring 1,100 more jobs to the casino on Interstate 35 in Thackerville. About 1,200 people work there now. "We're really excited about creating this great opportunity for the tribe and creating a unique experience for our customers,” said Brian Campbell, administrator for the tribe's commerce division. "As we progress, it will also be good for the state of Oklahoma through additional revenue from the gaming compact.” Brad Fortner, chief development officer, said a facade will be added to the existing tent-like structure for the casino. The facade will continue along the east side and wrap around the north side of an expanded steel structure to create a unified look in the style of a Tuscan city. "It will integrate the solid building with the soft structure so they work seamlessly,” Fortner said. "It will have a long, cityscape feel to it and change the perspective of what people see when they come up.”
A new experienceInside the expansion will be five new casinos in the style of world capitals ranging from London and Paris to Rome, Madrid and Beijing, Fortner said. In addition to new restaurants, a multi-function convention and event center will seat 2,500 people and can be split into three rooms. Another eight breakout rooms will seat between 30 and 40 people each, he said. Campbell said Chicago-based Gaming Capital Group will own and operate an adjoining hotel that is expected to employ 100 people. "Our facility will join with theirs so you can walk directly from the casino to the hotel,” Campbell said. "Our systems will also work together so they can enjoy gaming and a great hotel.” Fortner said the tribe also plans to build a 150-space RV park between its existing Microtel motel and its 18-hole golf course, which opened last summer. Meanwhile, the second phase of an access road expansion will start later this year. That will extend the road from Microtel down to I-35's Exit 1, he said.
Casino warsThe new WinStar will overtake Riverwind, the Chickasaws' sister casino south of Norman, as the state's largest tribal gaming facility. When the expansion is complete, WinStar will have 6,000 electronic gaming machines and encompass 300,000 square feet. It currently has 2,100 machines in 190,000 square feet. The Chickasaws' expansion in southern Oklahoma represents another salvo in the battle with Louisiana to draw Texans to casinos. Drivers on both sides of the Red River are bombarded with billboards advertising either WinStar or any number of Louisiana casinos in the Shreveport-Bossier City area. WinStar draws heavily from the north Texas region for its customer base. Campbell said more than 90 percent of the casino's customers come from that area, which has more than 8 million people. "Even with this expansion, it appears we'll not meet all the demand that's there long-term,” Campbell said. "That market is just huge.” Right now, WinStar is filled to capacity on most weekends, he said. "Our location is a big competitive advantage,” Campbell said. "We're an hour or less from most of the (Dallas-Fort Worth) Metroplex. It's a minimum of three hours to Shreveport. We also have a unique approach to gaming and a unique customer experience you won't see in Shreveport-Bossier City.” And it's not just customers. Many WinStar employees come from cities within a 75-mile radius of the casino, from Marlow to Ardmore and south to the Texas cities of Gainesville and Denton, Fortner said. The tribe is considering adding buses from the Dallas area to bring in employees for the expanded casino.
Housing needed"We're also trying to work with outside developers to increase the housing market here or for some apartments,” Fortner said. "That will better serve our community and give our employees a closer place to live rather than driving those long distances.” Among the possibilities is the River Ridge development proposed by Billy Tate of McKinney, Texas. Tate and his two partners are selling tracts of land on 198 acres south of WinStar and on two sides of the tribe's golf course. Tate said two homes have been built out of a planned 59-lot development of single-family homes. Best Western has expressed interest in a 64-room hotel, and he's had inquiries from retail chains such as Starbucks, he said. A 16,000 square-foot strip mall is also planned for property on the frontage road. Tate is negotiating with the tribe to get service for wastewater. Once that is in place, he plans up to 300 units of townhouses and apartments in the next five years. "We're getting a lot of response from baby boomers,” Tate said of the River Ridge development. "They want to have a place they can golf and be close to the lakes. It's becoming an entertainment venue, and now they can have something to offer the kids and grandkids when they come to visit.”
What's the reaction?A few miles down I-35 in Gainesville, there's a buzz about town over the WinStar expansion. Kent Sharp, executive director of Gainesville Economic Development Corp., said two new hotels have opened in the city last year. Although local officials already have regular contact with casino management, Sharp said they plan to intensify those discussions to enhance tourism and infrastructure efforts. "We haven't done studies to quantify the visitors in our hotels that are going to the casino, but it's a topic of discussion in economic development circles, the chamber and in local government planning,” Sharp said. "Regardless if you love it, leave it or hate it, everybody realizes it has a positive impact on the economy.”
Schematic architectural theme: A new facade planned for WinStar casino in Thackerville will include architectural elements from Italy's Tuscany region. PROVIDED BY CHICKASAW NATION