NEAR CARBERRY — The parking lot was full and the dignitaries plentiful as the first-ever First Nations-owned casino in Westman officially swung open its doors yesterday.
Officials and players flocked to Sand Hills Casino to usher in the 31,000-square-foot gaming centre that will feature 350 slot machines, table games, a restaurant, lounge and live entertainment.
The grand opening was a culmination of years of work, which has seen the casino undergo a name change and switch management groups prior to a shovel ever being put in the ground.
"Being persistent pays off," Swan Lake Chief Francine Meeches said, standing in the lounge of the new casino following the ribbon-cutting.
The casino is built on Swan Lake First Nation land on Highway 5 south of Carberry.
Meeches believes the casino, and the funding agreement with Hemisphere Gaming, which is managing the facility, will benefit her reserve.
The casino will be owned by all 63 Manitoba First Nations, which will share equally in the profits.
"We face a shortage of funds at all times and our funding isn’t adequate," Meeches said. "Any extra revenue that we can create is a huge bonus to us, especially when it comes to education, health, recreation and economic development.
"We want to keep people busy, and if you can keep the youth busy, they stay out of trouble."
An agreement was signed with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Swan Lake First Nation and the province to build a casino in May 2009.
After several failed bids to move the project forward, Minnesota-based Hemisphere Gaming signed a contract with the AMC in 2012.
Last summer, construction on the $25-million project finally got started.
Now fully operational, the casino will employ 175 full-time employees, with 60 per cent of them aboriginal.
"This is a significant day for First Nations," AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said. "After many years of working towards a casino in western Manitoba, we’re very proud to open a business that will benefit all First Nations in the province."
Standing in the middle of the gaming floor, with VLTs flashing and ringing all around him, Hemisphere Gaming president Ali Alizadeh said the initial investment is just Phase 1 of what will be a multi-phase project.
It’s the second casino in the province that the company has helped finance and manage, the first one being the South Beach Casino, which opened in 2005 on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
Hemisphere came under fire from some groups that accused it of taking too significant a cut of the profits at South Beach.
Alizadeh said the deal worked out for Sand Hills is a completely different situation.
"It’s a totally different transaction because the South Beach Casino is owned by seven First Nations and this casino is owned by all Manitoba First Nations," he said. "The deal is slightly different, but the economics probably would be about the same."
The deal will see Hemisphere manage the casino for a substantial fee and payments for 10 years.
"We put a transaction on the table that we believed is fair and equitable and (the AMC) looked at a number of different transactions and they felt ours was fair and equitable," he said.
The casino has an annual payroll of $5 million, and over the first 10 years is anticipated to have a cumulative economic impact of at least $150 million in the Westman region.