Virtual G2E: Tribes need to address broader issues with casino recovery

October 27, 2020 7:43 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 27, 2020 7:43 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

Rebuilding the tribal casino industry could take years, but Native Americans can accomplish that while also seizing a “sacred opportunity” to lead on broader issues, members of Global Gaming Expo panel said today.

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“There’s an unimaginable future that’s about to emerge in the wake of COVID-19,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, formed in 1944 to protect sovereign rights.

“When we look at new and emerging opportunities, we have to look beyond our states,” she said. “The recalibration of the global economy is going to happen with public-private partnerships, with a global strategy.”

She spoke during a Global Gaming Expo virtual panel discussion titled “Tribal Gaming and the Pandemic Recovery: What Does the Future Hold?” Chris James, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, and Ernest Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, also were on the panel. NIGA conference chair Victor Rocha moderated. James’s group, the country’s largest Indian-specific business organization, helps tribal and individual businesses by providing training, resource, and advocacy programs.

Stevens estimated that the $35 billion tribal gaming industry will be down by about 20 percent this year. Casino staffers with 10 to 20 years of experience are out of a job.

For many casinos, “their reserves are gone, and you can’t just create those overnight,” he added. “It took us years to build this industry; it’s going to take us years to build it back.”

Rocha noted that tribal casinos were the first to institute safety procedures such as temperature checks, face-mask requirements, and plexiglass barriers.

James said the pandemic’s effect on Indian businesses, owned individually or by a tribe, has been 10 times worse than in the country as a whole. He said 30 percent to 40 percent of the business his group surveys may not return to full operation because of a lack of capital or resources.

He said tribal gaming generates affiliated businesses, such as in resort areas, and tribes are diversifying into other areas, such as government contracting.

Sharp said the $2 trillion CARES Act to help businesses nationwide earmarked $8 billion for tribes, but that amounted to “crumbs off the table.”

Tribal casinos fund many public service programs, including health care.

Sharp encouraged tribal leaders to look at the bigger picture of recovery from the pandemic, including tax, gaming, and economic policies, as well as racial inequality and other issues.

“We have a very powerful vision of how we are going to not only meet today’s challenge, but come out even stronger,” she said. “The whole world is paying attention. It’s undeniable we have the sovereign authority to continue to advance to build our economies.”