KANSAS CITY, Kan. — After an 11-year battle to get a gambling hall in downtown Kansas City, Kan., the Oklahoma-based Wyandotte Nation is marking the first anniversary of its 7th Street Casino on Friday with little fanfare but a lot of confidence that it has proven itself worthy of running such a venture.
A year ago, Wyandotte Nation Chief Leaford Bearskin conducted a pipe ceremony and Mayor Joe Reardon cut a ribbon to officially open the casino in a former Masonic lodge. With a $20 million facelift, the old building was a far cry from the series of mobile homes in which the tribe had set up a makeshift casino in 2004, and which the state promptly shut down.
On Thursday, even Bearskin was a little surprised that a year had gone by since that gala opening.
"We told the people up there that Kansas City would never be sorry that the Wyandottes are in town," Bearskin said in an interview from Oklahoma. "We still say that."
Reardon said he has been pleased with the cooperation of the Wyandotte Nation and the quality of its project, both on the inside and the outside of the building. He said he also is happy with the additional tax revenue the city has received.
When it opened, the casino was expected to gross between $15 million and $20 million a year, pumping much-needed tax money into the coffers of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. To date, the local government has received roughly $397,000 in tax proceeds from the facility.
Second Chief Billy Friend estimated that the casino grossed between $13 million and $15 million between Jan. 10 and Sept. 30, the end of the facility's fiscal year.
"It's been a great success the first year," Friend said. "It has met all of our expectations as far as head count and revenue count. It's done everything we expected it to, even in a slumping economy."
Reardon called the casino an important piece of the puzzle in the city's efforts to improve its urban core.
"I think what we've seen is that we do have a lot more folks downtown visiting that location," he said. "Anytime in an urban environment when you have people visiting and walking around, the vitality that occurs in the evening and during the day has been a positive thing for our downtown."
The tribe began its efforts to open a casino in 1996 when it bought the former Scottish Rite temple and surrounding half-acre of land. The three-story building now houses a steakhouse, lounge and a casino with more than 500 Class II slot machines that operate like bingo games. Denominations range from penny slots to $25, and gamblers have won jackpots of up to $100,000 there, according to the casino's marketing director.
"It's going very well," Bearskin said. "We had quite a few problems with the state of Kansas some time back, but it's all in the past. We are working with the Unified Government, the mayor, and have a wonderful relationship going."
But the Kansas attorney general's office still contends the casino is illegal and has appealed a federal judge's order dismissing the state's challenge to the operation. That appeal, before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is still in the briefing phase, said Ashley Anstaett, spokeswoman for Attorney General Steve Six.
"We contend that gaming on that site is unlawful because land was not taken into trust properly," Anstaett said.
The state argues that the Wyandotte Nation improperly bought the building and land for the casino using federal funds that were not allowed for such purposes.
"As far as we're concerned, we've won the case three times," Friend said. "We're hoping the 10th Circuit this time makes it final."
Dave McCullough, an Oklahoma City attorney and the tribe's general counsel, said that despite the state's appeal, the casino is going strong and the Wyandottes are confident that the matter will be resolved in their favor.
"From the Wyandotte perspective, we're open because we prevailed in all the litigation that's gone before," he said. "The state still has an appeal ongoing, but obviously that litigation doesn't keep us from gaming."
McCullough noted that the 7th Street Casino has been doing brisk business, and though a little surprised there was no big anniversary celebration planned to mark its opening, he understands why.
"My understanding is that facility has been doing very well and is consistent," he said. "It's a small place. If it's full most of the time, I don't think you need a promotion to bring more people in."
As for competition with the Kansas City, Mo., riverboat casinos and proposed casinos in Kansas, marketing director Brandy Severson said there isn't any.
"We don't mind those other casinos," Severson said. "We are a totally different market, a totally different animal."
"We're not just a casino, we're friends and family to our guests," she said. Employees are called team members, and they're encouraged to interact with gamblers to make them feel welcome, she said.
She said the casino does plan to celebrate its opening, but not until late February to coincide with the anniversary of last year's "official" grand opening events.