EVARO – If she wasn’t the first person to slide money into a gaming machine at the new Gray Wolf Peak Casino in the moments after it opened here Tuesday afternoon, Pat Doyle was close to it.
The Arlee woman put a $5 bill into a slot-like (but technically, an electronic bingo) penny machine, and fairly quickly won five free spins.
And after the fifth spin, the machine announced her winnings.
“Ten cents,” she said, laughing.
If the casino is to do what its owners – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – want, its 307 machines will have to be stingy more often than not.
The tribes are betting the $21.1 million casino can better capture millions of dollars in potential gaming revenue from nearby Missoula and Interstate 90 than the original – and considerably smaller – Gray Wolf Peak Casino did.
Gaming in state-controlled casinos in Montana is limited to $2 bets and $800 payouts. At CSKT properties on the Flathead Indian Reservation, bets can be as much as $10 and jackpots can climb to $500,000 and beyond.
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Indeed, last year, CSKT’s KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino in Polson paid out a $915,525 jackpot to one lucky winner.
Doyle’s penny machine was offering an $8,966 jackpot Tuesday, and she wasn’t expecting to hit it.
“I’d probably have a heart attack,” she decided.
The tribes opened the original Gray Wolf Peak Casino on U.S. Highway 93 10 years ago.
It had room for 112 machines, and closed for good at 10 p.m. Monday. Employees spent the next 16 hours transferring some of the equipment there to the new 34,000-square-foot facility next door.
Initial plans, announced two years ago, included a hotel, but S&K Gaming CEO Brian Miller said that had been pushed back into a potential “phase II option.”
Other speakers at Tuesday’s grand opening made it sound like the hotel – which would now be placed on top of the new casino – is already a go. CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley said “we’ll be adding a hotel to the top” and S&K Gaming chairman Allen Sloan said it would happen in the next 2 ½ years.
“There’s much more to come,” Sloan said. “We’re just getting started.”
Between 100 and 200 gamblers gathered to wait for the doors to open for the first time, even as workers continued to prepare more ground for parking lots and a crane waited to swing a large sign of a howling wolf into place.
“I hope everyone has their $20 ready,” Finley told the crowd.
“Today is a good day,” he added. “It’s been a long journey, but we’re really happy with the way it turned out.”
Miller declined to compare it to the KwaTaqNuk, which added – and later moved and expanded – its casino after the resort was built.
“This is a purposely built facility that was intended to be a casino, restaurant and lounge, with the possibility of a hotel,” he said of Gray Wolf Peak. “It’s roomier (than the Polson casino) and has state-of-the-art equipment.”
Construction itself ran $15.4 million, and other equipment brought the total price tag to $21.1 million, he said.
The casino will employ 105 to 120 people, up from the 35 who worked at the original casino. The old building is slated to be torn down soon.
Doyle, who said she normally only brings $20 to Evaro to gamble with and rarely wins more than $100 playing penny machines, called the new casino “beautiful.”
“I think there’s a lot of other things the tribes could use the money on,” said Doyle, a CSKT member, “but this will probably be a money-maker, so I guess it’s a good thing.”