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Comanche casino rings up first year of success

Times Record News
Category: Page 1
Published: 01/12/2004
Page: A1

Byline: Daniel Bartel Times Record News

RANDLETT, Okla. - Before the first coin, first bill or first glimmer of hope went into a game machine at the new Comanche Red River Casino, the Comanche tribe wagered first.

In 2002, Comanche officials took a chance in moving its tiny casino operation near Randlett, Okla., into a mammoth facility.

Game machines and staff jumped in number, as did the patronage. After the doors opened in January 2003, the cash came flooding in. The old casino handled $3-5 million a year - the new casino handled nearly $100 million, Comanche Nation chairman Wallace Coffey said.  The business of risk-taking and destiny comes naturally, he said.

"Games of chance and skill have always been part of our culture," Coffey said. "That includes horseracing and even foot-racing. It fits right in with us."

After the new casino's first year, the Lawton-based Comanche Nation is looking to expand the casino's borders. This February, tribe officials are likely to announce plans for a nearby horse racetrack, hotel, restaurant and possible golf course, Coffey said.

That's also the plan for other gambling parlors in Oklahoma that seek to expand from gas station backrooms and into full-fledged tourism destinations. 

"These things are mushrooming all over the state," state Rep. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, said. "Personally, I'm not big on gambling, but no one seems to able to stop it."

Night and day
Drivers heading west on Highway 70 from I-44 will pass an abandoned bingo parlor and eventually see a bright beacon flashing on the horizon.  It's an odd vision considering the area: miles and miles of farm and ranch land, yellowed from lack of rain.

Despite the desolate environment, the parking lot is packed by late morning - more half of the vehicles have Texas license plates.  The casino's giant video screen outside is a picture of how the operation has increased.
Assistant manager Gene Red Elk lets out a throaty chuckle when asked to compare the new casino with the doublewide trailer casino it replaced.

"There's a world of difference," Red Elk said. "It's as different as night and day."

It's easy to note the contrast. Built in August 1999, the doublewide trailer was the tribe's foray into gaming in southern Oklahoma that began with about 100 machines and 24 employees. Now, the new 22,500-square foot facility is home to more than 600 machines and 190 employees.

The casino pays out about $8 million a month, Ken Goodin, general manager said. It works to entice new customers and keep regular ones coming back.

"We had a woman who started with $60 and walked out of here with $42,000," Goodin said. "That's the best advertising for us. If we treated them well, they'll come back."

Image change
In the past year, the casino has broadened the scope of its operation to include pool tournaments, private parties and live music, Goodin said.

Managers are quick to correct someone for using the word "gambling" to describe the casino. 

"We're in the entertainment business," Goodin said. 

As the Randlett casino and others like it continue to show success and profitability, the next step is to expand upon that success. At present, Oklahoma casinos are prohibited from using Class 3 or Vegas-style gambling: on-site horse track betting, roulette, craps and slot machines that dispense cash instead of paper tickets.

But Oklahoma lawmakers are working on new legislation that would allow casinos to have on-site horse racetracks and tournament-style blackjack, Wilson said. 

Moreover, Oklahoma's suffering horse industry would get a leg up as casinos would be allowed to build racetracks. Existing-but-bankrupt horse racetracks would get a boost as well. They'd be permitted to utilize casino game machines, he said. In exchange, the state would get a cut of the industry's $500 million take, Wilson said.

It's an exercise in political back scratching where everybody wins, Wilson said.

"The tribes are spending a lot of money trying to turn these casinos into destination points where you stay, eat, play and then go home," he said. "The industry is maturing."

Lords of the Plains
Though the casino netted $6 million this year, Coffey assures the money is only a means to an end. After paying for the cost of doing business, casino profits are funneled back into the tribe to pay for education and health care, he said. 

Aside from benefiting the tribe, casino profits also add to the local economy through the creation of jobs. The casino has even donated money to schools and other civic organizations.  The remade Randlett casino mirrors the push by other tribes to remake their images and - in doing so - take charge of their own financial and cultural destinies, he said. 

"We considered ourselves lords of the Plains at one time," Coffey said. "Maybe this way we can be lords of the

Plains once again."