On December 29, 2004, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians' new Emerald Queen Casino opens in Fife in northern Pierce County, following reduction in road access to the original paddlewheel riverboat casino located on the Blair Waterway in Tacoma to allow for development of a Port of Tacoma container facility for the shipping conglomerate Evergreen Marine Corporation. Following a contentious negotiation process between the Puyallup Tribe and the Port of Tacoma regarding the future development of the Blair Waterway and the location of the original casino, an agreement provides the opportunity for the Puyallup Tribe to greatly expand casino gaming, with new or enlarged facilities at both the Fife location and at the Emerald Queen Casino I-5 just off the Interstate in Tacoma.
Considering Gaming as a Source of Development
In the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement of 1990, the Puyallup Tribe was provided a settlement package of $162 million in land, fisheries, economic and social development, and the construction of the Blair Navigation Project in exchange for relinquishing its claims to much of the 18,000 acres of reservation land allocated to the Tribe in the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, which over the years had been occupied and developed by non-natives, including most of the valuable waterfront property on which the Port of Tacoma's harbor facilities were located. This was in response to the claims to ownership of reservation land that the Tribe had pursued over the decades against local governmental, private, and commercial interests.
With the notion of economic self-sufficiency for the Puyallup Tribe increasingly becoming a reality after the settlement, the Tribe decided to pursue gaming as a possible solution to its depleting federal revenue. Similar to other tribes across the United States, the Tribe also viewed bingo as gateway to future forays in the realm of gaming. In 1992, the Tribe opened a 36,993-square-foot bingo hall just off Interstate 5 in Tacoma, costing approximately $2.1 million and seating upward of 1,500 people. Payment for the bingo hall was made possible through monies provided to the Tribe under the Land Claims Settlement.
With the bingo hall providing some revenue, plans for utilizing more of the land that the Tribe had acquired under the settlement to support gaming endeavors got underway. The Tribe proceeded to develop some of its property on the Tacoma waterfront. This property was situated on the Blair Waterway and was highly valuable land, with the Tribe seeing it as an opportunity to pursue a higher form of economic development. Considering the expansion of casino-level gaming that took place throughout the country after the implementation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), casino development was viewed as a significant means by which the Puyallup Tribe could potentially gain economic independence. With the possibility of increased gaming revenues, hopes of lifting the community out from underneath a cloud of despair and poverty became more promising.
Just as there had been internal disputes over how to resolve the the land claims, opinions differed greatly among Tribal members as to whether having the Tribe operate a casino on reservation land was a negative or a positive for the Tribe overall. Many members stood against it on an ethical basis, seeing it as something for which traditions and cultural pathways would be diminished and replaced with materialism. Some felt that organized crime could become a problem if the casino was built, citing historical examples of such behavior to support their argument. But other Tribal members considered the casino in a much different light, seeing it as the answer for resolving communal impoverishment. Some saw it as the only way in which any kind of hope for the future of the Tribe could be achieved.
With this diverse range of opinions in the community, a proposal was put forward as to whether a casino would be placed and operated on reservation land. Although it proved highly controversial, a majority of the Tribal members voted yes, effectively leading to the building of a casino on the Puyallup Reservation.
Success of the Emerald Queen Casino
Viewing the project as a way to employ its membership as well as to seek new forms of revenue development, the Puyallup Tribe opened the Emerald Queen Casino (EQC) in 1996. Built as a paddlewheel riverboat, a majority of the casino structure was placed on the water. Visitors had the opportunity to participate in a variety of table games and slot machines. The casino's location brought in significant traffic from tourists and visitors to the area, with many coming to view it as a Tacoma landmark. In 2002, a second, smaller addition to the riverboat casino was opened, as the Emerald Queen Casino I-5, in the building that had housed the Tribe's bingo hall.
The success of the casino operations opened the pathway for self-determination for the Puyallup Tribe, providing the possibility for which full economic development could finally emerge. The casino not only supported Tribal members, but also extended outside of the Tribal community to help those around them. The casinos provided around 1,000 jobs with full benefits for the diverse workforce in the area, soon becoming one of the largest employers in Pierce County. The casino project also brought business to a variety of local vendors, as the Tribe contracted with local construction firms to build and maintain the casino and conducted financial matters through a local bank, all of which reflected the willingness of the Tribe to support the local community.
The Tribe also gave back considerable shares of its casino profits to local communities, using its newly obtained profits first to help its own members but then also to financially the the larger community. For Tribal members, much of the casino profits have gone to support social and economic development. This can be seen in a variety of efforts, including the construction of health and dental clinics and financial aid for higher education.
Future of the Emerald Queen Casino in Jeopardy
Less than a decade after its opening, the original Emerald Queen Casino ran into a significant dilemma that put its future in jeopardy. Authorities from the Port of Tacoma announced plans to develop a new container facility on the Blair Waterway for the shipping conglomerate Evergreen. In order for this construction to occur, the main roadway leading to the EQC would have to be closed. Lawyers representing the Tribe raised the issue that such a closure would not only have a significant impact on casino revenue but would also greatly affect employees working at the casino. Additionally, since the tribal government had established its administration offices near the EQC, the closure would severely hinder daily operations of the government.
The Port of Tacoma had a strict target date that had to be met for the deal to be kept afloat, a deadline that the Tribe was only informed of months before the target date. Due to the reliance on the casino economy in sustaining Tribal operations, this placed Tribal officials in a rather difficult position for which they had to hastily come up with a solution. Another issue to contend with was the legal status of land on which a casino could be operated, which factored into whether the Tribe could build a new casino if the original one were closed. State officials at the time would only agree to construction of casinos on trust land -- land to which the U.S. government has legal title and holds in trust for the benefit of a tribe or individual Indians (as opposed to land on the reservation owned outright by Tribal members or non-Indians). This proved to be troublesome for the Tribe as there were currently no trust land properties adequately sized to develop a new casino on, let alone provide the ease of access that the original EQC location had enjoyed.
The complexities involved made it seem improbable that the Tribe could come to a beneficial resolution. On one hand, the Tribe could take legal action against the Port of Tacoma's proposed development for Evergreen, in order to provide time for the federal government to place more land in trust for the benefit of the Tribe. On the other hand, the Tribe could persuade the state to reconsider its regulatory measure requiring casinos to be placed on trust land, in turn allowing the Tribe to immediately begin construction of a new casino on any available reservation land and subsequently initiating the process by which that land could be placed into trust.
The Tribe chose to persuade the state government to allow construction of a new casino to occur without delay. In order to pursue this aim, a partnership was established to address the the rather challenging situation facing the Tribe. The partnership included Tribal spokespeople and leaders, state officials, the local Pierce County and the City of Tacoma governments, and participants in the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement. As in past situations, the Tribe also had congressional support, advocating on its behalf and to see that it gained governmental backing for its request.
New Casino Facilities in Tacoma and Fife
After some deliberation, and in a historic turn of events, state officials decided to agree to the Tribe's request and allow the construction of a new casino at a location chosen by the Tribe rather than on trust land. After the decision, the Tribe purchased the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center location in Fife and immediately began working to have the new casino completed before the closing of the road leading to the original EQC.
Along with this new purchase, the Tribal government also moved its administrative offices to the Eastside neighborhood in Tacoma, positioned at the center of the Puyallup Reservation. In addition, in 2004 the Tribe undertook a major expansion of the Emerald Queen Casino I-5, using a tent facility to greatly increase the quantity of gaming choices offered offered there, surpassing the original EQC in size.
That same year, the primary road leading to the original EQC was closed to allow the planned Port of Tacoma development and to prepare for future commercial development of the waterway by the Tribe, with the paddlewheel riverboat remaining at the site. After considerable renovation efforts, the casino portion of the planned Emerald Queen Hotel and Casino opened at the former Best Western location in Fife on December 29, 2004.
The hotel portion of the Fife facility opened the following year. Although smaller than the Emerald Queen Casino I-5 when it was first completed, the Emerald Queen Hotel and Casino was expanded several times over subsequent years. Combined, the two locations made the EQC one of the largest casinos in Washington, with the majority portion of its revenue that goes to the Tribe becoming the main overall income source for the Tribe.
Casino Economy and Transformation for the Tribe
The successful implementation of the casino economy by the Puyallup Tribe has allowed it to provide an assortment of benefits to its membership as well as the outside community. For its membership, a monthly per capita payment system was implemented. The Tribe has also allocated funds each year to the cities of Tacoma, Puyallup, and Fife, and provided funding to Pierce County and the State of Washington. With the inception of the EQC, the Tribe has been given the ability to donate millions of dollars over the years to charitable institutions, municipal development projects, social services, and improving tribal infrastructure.
The notion of the Puyallup Tribe being a prosperous American Indian tribe has only been a recent development in its rather extensive history in Washington. Prior decades saw many Tribal members experiencing the worst that life had to offer, with substandard housing, income and employment inequality, and dilapidated health and education facilities, all of which culminated in having the membership being exposed to some of the most deplorable conditions in the entire state. This was mainly due to of years of dwindling opportunities for the Tribe as a result of federal government policies and the loss of reservation land to non-Indian enterprises and individuals, which the Land Claims Settlement sought to redress.
For the Puyallup Tribe, the settlement and the casino economy have rapidly transformed ways of living and economic pathways to the future. Once extremely poor and impoverished as a whole, the casino economy has given Tribal members an outlet by which they can rise above the harsh realities they had experienced for nearly a century. This transformative process has positioned the Tribe as one of the more successful examples and applications of Indian gaming in the Pacific Northwest, bringing with it tremendous prestige and viability as a key component of the South Sound economy.