Red Cliff band bets on success of new casino

By Candace Renalls
Bayfield, Wisconsin (AP) October 2011

Forget Las Vegas glitz.

The new Legendary Waters Resort & Casino three miles north of Bayfield is designed to fit into the scenic South Shore, not to stand out like a neon sign.

Picturesque, the expansive two- to three-story $23.5 million complex sits on the shore of Lake Superior on the Red Cliff Indian Reservation with a view of the Apostle Islands. Built with an earth-friendly approach and designed to be welcoming, it opened quietly before its grand opening.

It replaced the Red Cliff band’s former casino, Isle Vista Casino, a small, dated, sorry-looking casino directly across Wisconsin Highway 13. The old casino closed Aug. 3, with its fate yet to be decided; the new 78,000-square-foot complex opened Aug. 9.

“There’s no comparison,” said Jim Bard, who manages the new casino’s gift shop and 47-slip marina.

“This is state of the art, top of the line,” said Bard, a Red Cliff band member who recently returned to the area. “This is a growing business. We want to make things as nice for our customers as possible.”

With a modern North Woods motif many tourists hanker for, Legendary Waters is poised to be a boon for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which owns and operates it.

With the switch to the new casino-resort, its staff has been boosted from 95 to 217 employees, with 80 percent of them band members, said Jeff Gordon, Legendary Waters’ general manager.

Attendance is up. Revenues are up. And occupancy of the hotel’s nearly 50 rooms has been at least 70 percent full since it opened, thanks to an increasing number of tour groups, he said. The rooms, all with lake views, are going for $79 or $99 per night; premier suites are $179 a night.

The casino is open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., but eventually it will go to 24 hours. And that means hiring even more employees.

While there is no per capita payment to band members out of the casino profits, its success means jobs and needed economic development on the reservation, including a new health clinic, Gordon said.

The economic impact of the new casino and resort is expected to extend to the surrounding communities. That’s because Legendary Waters is a destination resort with amenities that go beyond gambling to include dining, lodging, a marina for seasonal and transient boaters, campgrounds, nearby trails, pool and showers and lockers for campers, kayakers snowmobilers and boaters. It also offers shuttle services to and from Bayfield and surrounding communities.

“This is a legitimate destination resort where a family or group of people can take a one- or two-hour drive and really enjoy themselves,” Gordon said. “It truly is a resort.”

To get there, visitors have to travel through neighboring communities. And they’re going to be stopping somewhere for lunch, rest stops and to get gas, noted Rachael Lamkin, the casino and resort’s marketing manager.

Cari Obst, executive director of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed. It will bring more people to the area, give Bayfield more exposure and provide another activity for people, she said.

“It is absolutely beautiful on a beautiful piece of land,” she said. “They have built something so appealing that it will have a major economic impact.”

Moreover, it will be open year-round, continuing to draw people after the traditional tourist season ends, she said.

Legendary Waters has an event center that can accommodate 500 people in stadium-style seating and 350 for weddings and banquets. Besides conferences and regular karaoke and comedy nights, Lamkin said name entertainment will be booked to play there.

Until the Legendary Waters opened, no place in the Bayfield area could accommodate that many people.

“It provides us with an event facility that houses more people than anywhere else in the whole Bayfield peninsula,” Obst said. “It’s the only facility that can accommodate a major event.”

It’s too soon, however, to measure the economic impact.

Debbie Gary, who works at Peterson’s Foods just down the highway from the casino, said business is always up in the summer. So the big test will be after the Bayfield Apple Festival in October, she said.

“If it keeps staying busy, that means they’re giving us a little more business,” she said.

Sherri Mettler of Washburn would go to the old Isle Vista Casino once in a while. She was at the new casino recently, trying her hand at the Mega Winner slot.

“This is much nicer,” she said of the new casino. “The facility is beautiful. The view is really nice. We go to a lot of casinos and none of them have windows. They’ve done a really nice job.”

Indeed, unlike other casinos, Legendary Waters has windows. Lots of them, bringing in natural light and a spectacular view. The dining room and bar have a wall of windows, allowing diners and bar patrons to gaze out at the marina, the lake and the Apostle Islands in the distance.

“This location is unbelievable,” said Mike Judge of Webb Lake, Wis., after eating in the dining room. “It was nice looking out over the water. It was beautiful.”

The tribe had been trying to build a new casino for at least 15 years. Efforts to get the project off the ground in 2005 failed when they couldn’t get financing. The tribe renewed its efforts two years ago. This time, they were successful, by partnering with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which operates Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake, Minn., Gordon said.

“They’ve helped other tribes, too,” he said.

Construction took 11 months. From the highway, the complex designed by Great Horse Group of Minneapolis looks like a one-story structure. From the lakeside, its multiple levels are seen. Inside, tall angled ceilings sport wide beams. Expansive fireplaces are made of limestone. Liberal use of wood and warm earth tones help create a comfortable, welcoming feel. The dining room sports a subtle nautical theme. A Heritage Wall showcases local history, culture and tribal members who served in the military. Local art is displayed throughout, including a handmade canoe in the hotel lobby.

Green ways are standard procedure. It’s reflected in the complex’s recycling programs, utility systems and use of bio-degradable cleaners. Even the complimentary shampoos in the hotel rooms are biodegradable. Smoking is restricted to the gaming area. But even there, in-floor air systems quickly pull smoke from the air. And outside, light levels are kept down at night with low-casting lights that don’t ruin the night sky.

Although Legendary Waters has been open less than two months, the Red Cliff band already is looking ahead to expand it. Next year, the campgrounds will be enlarged. And later, they’re looking at adding another 50 hotel rooms to bring the total to 100 and doubling the size of the marina.