Thousands streamed into Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino last week as its doors were reopened after being closed by state and federal agencies nearly 15 months ago.
For many who waited in line hours before the 10 a.m. ribbon cutting New Year’s Eve, the casino’s reopening meant a chance to see old friends, and maybe win a few dollars.
“It’s like a vacation away from home,” said Michelle Fohn, a self-described casino “regular” who lined up at 7 a.m. “It’s just a beautiful place to enjoy some fun and have a good time.”
As the casino floors were opened, patrons approached restaurants, slot machines, and gaming tables with loud cheers and their arms in the air.
“I can’t stop smiling,” tribal Chairwoman Claudia Gonzales said. “This tribal council has worked so hard over the last two months, it’s been a very long struggle and we’re so happy to finally get it done.”
Excitement about the reopening created an air of joy inside the 56,000-square-foot gaming area, with wide smiles present on the face of nearly every guest and employee.
David Rendon, employed as a bartender for five years until the casino was closed by state and federal government, said he couldn’t wait to get back to the job he always enjoyed.
“When it was closed, work was gone,” said Rendon, who worked numerous jobs before being rehired. “I had to try to do what I could to survive and find a job. I wasn’t sure when it was going to reopen ... but I’m excited to be back to work and kick off the new year ready to make some money.”
With the partial reopening Dec. 31, around 850 staff members returned providing service for 1,700 slot machines, 22 table games, 220 hotel rooms and restaurants such as the California Market Buffet and Vintage Steakhouse. It is estimated about 250 of those employees live in the Mountain Area.
A grand reopening with all seven restaurants, an additional 200 hotel rooms, and 150 more employees is scheduled for Jan. 15.
“This is beyond important, I can’t even describe how much it means to our area,” said Tom Wheeler, District 5 Madera County Supervisor. “To get back these 1,000 jobs, the benefits for our economy, it’s perfect. I could not be any more pleased.”
Before it closed, Chukchansi Gold had an annual payroll of $32 million, and generated around $100 million in revenue. Additionally, the tribe and resort bought supplies from Mountain Area or Valley sources, and gave out $1 million in annual grants split between several community groups.
Gonzales said the tribe has already worked to bring back that community grants program, along with increased fire safety, law enforcement, and higher payments made to Madera County after discussions in December over a revised Memorandum of Understanding.
The hotel and casino were closed Oct. 10, 2014, after a faction from the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, with hired security forces led by Tex McDonald, raided the facility a day earlier over a dispute about missing audit documentation.
Morris Reid, one of seven tribal council members elected in October of 2015, said the reopening meant it was time for the tribe to put aside its differences and focus on a strong, fresh start.
“We need to put aside our differences and come together,” Reid said. “Band together to make this work, learn from our mistakes, and never let this happen again.”
Some factions disagree.
During and the day before the reopening, protesters from two tribal groups held signs and voiced their concerns outside the casino.
Members of the “distributees,” who claim there are only 46 true tribal members, were joined by some from the Monica Davis faction formerly headed by McDonald.
Luke Davis, a cousin of Monica Davis, leads the distributees.
Together, the groups claim the tribal council’s election was illegal as members disenrolled between 2010-2012 were allowed to cast ballots. They as well as legal representation have indicated a desire to bring this issue to federal court, possibly in a new lawsuit.
Gonzales said in a democratic process, differences will remain, but the council she chairs has eyes set on the future.
“We’re here for our tribe, we’re here for our people, and we’re here to benefit from and enjoy this economic engine to the best of our ability,” Gonzales said. “We will go the extra mile to provide positivity to our community, for our family, for our friends, and for our tribe.”
“This is a significant step for the tribe,” added Christian Goode, Chief Operating Officer for the casino. “It’s a new day at Chukchansi, and I invite everyone to come and enjoy it.”