After an October raid led to 15 felony arrests and closure orders by the National Indian Gaming Commission and state Attorney General, Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino remained an empty shell for months.
Chukchansi’s 1,300 slot machines, 40 table games, restaurants, and more than 400 hotel rooms have sat abandoned, and some 1,050 employees were ousted from their jobs.
Christian Goode, who took over as the casino’s chief operating officer in July, has promised to change that entire experience, with a reopening set to take place this month, pending federal, state, and county approval.
Positive developments for the tribe have taken place, as a collective bargaining agreement was recently struck for some 700 former employees at the casino, with more former staffers and potential new hires being welcomed into the fold.
All applicants interested in working at the 24/7 property are welcome to fill out job applications at http://chukchansigold.com/.
A tribal council with multiple rival faction leaders has also been recognized by federal agencies, giving authority for tribal and casino developments back to a legitimate governing body, led by Tribal Chairman Reggie Lewis.
Goode, who co-founded casino management and development company Ivory Gaming, said all that positive progress is a sign that a “new day” is underway at the gaming house.
Though he understands there’s been some issues, Goode was not afraid to answer many questions about the reopening process, including any challenges he or his company may face.
So how did the Chukchansi tribe contact you for your services?
I was referred to the opportunity by a mutual friend that knew the tribe and knew me, and introduced us to each other.
I’m sure that when they reached out to you, you were aware of the situation they were in, with not only a closed casino, but years of tribal divisions?
I actually was not aware. I was first contacted and had an introduction in May, and saw the history, met with them, came out and developed the relationship from there, then started work in July.
There’s been a lot of diverse opinions and factions in the tribe. If this casino is reopened, lots of people will want to come back, but maybe there’s customers who won’t. Maybe they don’t think this facility is safe. What would you say to them?
I would tell them to give us an opportunity. From the minute you drive on this property, to the minute you leave, you will feel safe and secure. And we strive, and I think we will be, the destination of choice in the Central Valley, from our hotel, our gaming experience, our amenity package whether it’s food or spa.
I guarantee you that we will do everything to ensure people’s safety. Even if you look in the past, there was no guest that was ever in danger or felt unsafe in my mind. We’re going to make sure employees are safe and the public is safe.
Another thing people are concerned about is traffic safety on Highway 41.
If you sit out here right now, a sheriff drives by every two hours, and we’re not open. We’ve had very in-depth discussions with the state, with the highway patrol, and with Madera County, which continues to provide fire and law-enforcement services here.
They’re only a phone call away, and we have a very good working relationship with those folks. Law enforcement is important, not just here, but in the community, that they be visible. We want to encourage that.
Do you have any comment about the IRS criminal investigation summons on a tribal council member?
The only thing I can tell you is that it wasn’t related to anything in the casino.
Are you kept up on tribal developments, primarily between rival factions or other concerns?
From whatever happened in the past that you referred to, I wasn’t here, I don’t know factions and all that stuff. What I do know is the federal government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), both identified the tribal council that’s in today and said you are the legitimate tribal council but you have to hold an election.
That’s a political process that has nothing to do with the casino. So the tribal council moved forward because this is the economic engine of the tribe. This provides a myriad of benefits to tribal members. Getting this restarted, and reopened, is important to every tribal member ... all that political stuff is separate. I don’t see it, I’m not involved in it, and frankly, I think they’re doing all the right steps to figure out their own issues and it has zero impact on this property.
Have you heard from the attorney general, NIGC, or the BIA about the reopening process? Are they giving you the thumbs up?
We’ve been working with them and we’re fully engaged in the process. I think probably in earnest since the council was recognized, they’ve proactively reached out and we’ve worked through all these processes. The closure order will be lifted in the near future. I think the state of California is comfortable with that being lifted, and obviously the NIGC is comfortable or they wouldn’t lift the order. All that will happen in the very near future, because we’ve been engaged and we’ve implemented everything they wanted us to implement and asked us to do.
But they haven’t set an opening date.
You have to understand, the NIGC regulates something like over 400 facilities. Things take time because of the process. But as far as our agreement and how we proceed, we’re engaged and talking with them probably daily, giving an update on progress, testing games, testing fire systems, all that. We just had a health inspection where we passed, all our food and beverage outlets will have an A rating.
Keeping them abreast of those, they’re getting more and more comfortable. We’re finalizing a financing plan, and once all that’s done, I think they’ll be more than satisfied we’ve met all the criteria and be comfortable with letting us proceed.
Will the planned September opening include all the restaurants, hotel, and the gaming floor?
All the restaurants will be reopened, along with 200 hotel rooms. All the restaurants, except a couple venues that were limited use in the past. Like Casa De Fuego, we’re going to rebrand that to something else ... use it for entertainment. What was Deuce’s Diner is going to be converted into something new.
What other changes do you have planned?
The 56,000 square-foot gaming floor is going to be revamped, with 1,800 slot machines, offering the latest machines from all the major slot vendors, and a new mix of table games. For example, Spanish 21 is going to have to match the dealer bets. We’re trying to introduce new products so it’s definitely a new experience.
What are the challenges in reopening Chukchansi Gold, and what makes you best suited to serve as COO?
If you look at my history, I’ve spent a lot of time in Native American gaming. I’ve also built large commercial properties. I think I have a pretty diverse background, and as with most businesses in large industries, one of the most important, primary pieces is your human capital, working with employees. And I think my background and experience allows me to engage in a very positive manner with employees, understand what they need to be successful, and properly support them.
This property is no different from other properties. It’s a union place so you have to have a (collective bargaining agreement) that’s respectful of the property and also the employees, and have mutually-beneficial relationships to develop win win situations. I’ve been doing this a long time and I think that’s one of they keys to being successful. You have to have a well-trained workforce that is excited and happy to be working at a facility, and I think that’s what we’re going to have here.
Through the collective bargaining agreement, there are about 700 employees coming back, with 300 to 400 spots left to fill?
I think we’re getting pretty good response from former employees that want to come back and work here. So I don’t think there will be that many to fill. We do have to fill some, I think it will be over 100, but where that falls, we’ll have to wait and see.
Are returning employees getting priority over new hires?
If you’re a former employee you definitely get priority before we bring anybody new in. We’re going to try and find a space for all former employees. We won’t get them all, but we’re getting a substantial amount, which is impressive. I think it goes to show that people like the facility, like working here, and they care about their jobs, which is excellent for us.
Will the casino run sort of the same way as before, with the same amount of employees, standards, and things like that?
There’s always going to be changes. I think as properties start to get developed, opened, and continue operations, everyone has their own view on things. The view always has to be on the patron experience, though, to make sure there’s a new, unique, and pleasurable experience every time they walk through the door.
What were some of the biggest events or promotions for the casino?
They ran a lot of random promotions here in the past and I think we’ll be doing a lot of the same. It’s about understanding who your patron is, and understanding what they respond to in terms of what they desire or what they want. You’re giving them a reason to come here and be entertained, and gaming is entertainment. But you supplement that with a great food and beverage experience, a great stay at the hotel, maybe an excellent afternoon at the spa or the pool, it’s about that entire experience. ... you have to make sure people are engaged and give them what they want.
We want to know what our guests are experiencing, and what works. You’ll see us being probably a bit more proactive on the electronic side about engaging through email ... like hello, you stayed with us for two nights, will you rate our experience and we’ll give you something back. We want to encourage feedback because that’s how we get better.
So overall, we can look forward to a similar system with a fully revamped style?
I think the best way to say it is it’s a new day here. It’s a new day from a patron experience and an employee experience. We want the culture to be very positive. We’re doing everything we can to facilitate that.
One thing some people are rumoring is that when the casino reopens, the slot machines will have a lower pay-off.
That’s not true. If you look at the slot floor here, it’s going to be the same as everywhere else. People are going to win, and we want winners. We want people to be happy, to win money. There’s no way you can ever somehow set it up in a negative way. That’s illegal.
It would go against the tribal state compact, against the NIGC regulations. We have to maintain the integrity of gaming. Every patron will have a chance to win. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and as far as the patron experience, we want people to come here and have fun. Part of that is winning money. If they don’t do that, they’re not going to come back.
Do you run the entire business side of things?
With the casino, yes.
One of the big problems that led to the casino raid was audit documentation that wasn’t filed for a long time, and then sent, with the NIGC recognizing there seemed to be $49.6 million not accounted for.
I have nothing to do with the past audits. All I can tell you is the documentation here at the casino is intact, and an independent, third party, nationally-recognized audit firm conducted the audit. I think the audits in question probably relate to other entities outside the casino entity.
I think they’re going through the process to satisfy whatever concerns the NIGC had, and are probably tracking down whatever the missing amount is. From my perspective, there’s an internal control environment with the casino. Whatever happens outside of that, I can’t speak to.
I think the tribe as a whole wants those audits completed and they’re taking serious steps to do that ... I think it’s an appropriate thing to do. Tribal members deserve to know what happened to things, and I think the council is going through the process to make sure that information is brought to light, whatever it is.
Now it’s time for another incredibly difficult question. Many readers have asked, will the sushi lady from the Noodle Bar come back?
laughs Yes, we’re going to have the noodle bar back, and yes, there will probably be some sushi. I don’t know the specific lady’s name but I’m sure she’s part of the recall process as everyone else who was working here, and you’re going to have a very enjoyable experience going to that restaurant.
What do you think is the biggest change you bring to this casino, in what really grabs a customer’s eye?
I think we had a great workforce in the past, so it may be hard to do, but I think customers will see an extremely positive attitude. If it’s more positive than before, I don’t know that, but I think the one thing I want is for people to feel comfortable and happy coming here.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Prior to Chukchansi, you were heading a $4 billion project called Resorts World Las Vegas. What brought you here?
My previous employment, prior to forming and starting Ivory Gaming, I was in charge of all operations and development for a company called Genting Americas, which is the North American subsidiary of Genting, which is a large Asian multinational company.
So you started Ivory Gaming on your own. What was the reasoning there?
I think there’s opportunities to go help people. In this case, the tribe, but help other commercial operators where they need management, expertise in management, or development, or various other facets in this industry.
What exactly is Ivory Gaming?
It’s a casino management and development company. Hospitality as well. We are located in Las Vegas and have an office in New York City.
Well, I suppose all I can say is something you’ve probably said to hundreds, if not thousands before, which is good luck.
Yes, definitely. Thank you.