At 10:00 p.m. on the Thursday evening, November 6, 2008, the Snoqualmie Casino holds its Grand Opening event. Located 30 miles east of downtown Seattle, the 170,000-square-foot facility features a 51,000-square-foot gaming floor, an 11,000-square-foot ballroom, a nightclub, a fine dining restaurant, a cigar lounge, and a six-level parking garage. The casino -- a dream project for the Snoqualmie Tribe -- is also one that was a long time in the making.
In late-2003 news broke publicly that the Snoqualmie Tribe was exploring the idea of constructing a $60 million gambling casino near the small, circa 1889, lumber railroad town of Snoqualmie (just off of Interstate 90 at Exit 27). Following the lead of other Washington tribes -- including the Tulalips, Muckleshoots, Puyallups, Kalispels, and the Chehalis Confederated Tribes -- who had already successfully launched casinos, the Snoqualmies had the advantage of picking a site closest to the population base of Seattle.
But the Snoqualmies' disadvantages were not insignificant: once the Puget Sound region's most populous tribe, they had -- ever since a mid-nineteenth century chief ceded all of their lands to the U.S. government -- been a landless people. Unrecognized by that government -- in part because they had no reservation lands -- the tribe (with its 600 members) finally won a petition that granted them official tribal status in 1999. That was the critical bureaucratic victory that allowed them to proceed with the dream to create a facility that would offer more than 700 new jobs, and provide income to support tribal services.
In 2002 the tribe successfully negotiated a compact with the Washington State Gambling Commission, and the initial hope was to open in the fall of 2007. But it was an uphill battle -- one that would ultimately take five more years to again approvals from agencies including the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission. But then in 2006 the BIA granted federal reservation status to the 57-acre site (on the north side of SE North Bend Way and on the east side of 372nd Avenue SE) that the Snoqualmie Tribe had selected.
The Snoqualmie Casino was designed by Bergman, Walls & Associates -- a Las Vegas-based firm responsible for other gaming resorts including that city's standout, The Mirage. The casino's general contractor was Skanska USA, which had already built impressive Seattle structures including McCaw Hall (321 Mercer Street) and Benaroya Hall (200 University Street).
Upon opening, the new facility included a gaming floor with 1,700 slot machines, 50 table games, and eight poker tables; the "LIT" cigar bar (with a walk-in humidor), the "Terra Vista" 88-seat high-end restaurant, and the "SNO" lounge and its huge balcony boasting a 180-degree view of the Snoqualmie Valley and Mount Si.
After attending a preview event one critic gushed: "Its imposing 'great lodge' design, with two prow-like structures atop its massive roof, belies a glitzy interior that features an enormous gaming area filled with gleaming, state-of-the-art slot machines and eye-popping dining areas and lounges" (Stout).
A Giant Gamble
As the casino project managers' ambitions grew and its physical scale expanded accordingly, the startup costs did likewise. That initial estimate of a $60 million budget increased sixfold. After acquiring the desired acreage, completing construction, building and training staff, and promoting the facility, $375 million had reportedly been invested.
In November 2008, and with the Grand Opening looming, Snoqualmie tribal administrator Matt Mattson, seemed confident if, understandably, a bit anxious: "We've been very conservative with our numbers and our projections and we're comfortable that we'll be able to service our debt and do quite well if we follow the statewide averages for casinos. I guess on Thursday and Friday, we're going to begin to find out if we're dramatically wrong." He added: "I've been talking about this project for eight years and it's been a virtual casino for so long that it's almost anticlimactic that this thing is opening" (Stout).