Finding Slots in the Forest

“We’re constantly looking at demographics and how we can get more people to our area,” John Neumann, General Manager of Northern Waters Casino Resort, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, previously told Native Business. 

This article was originally published pre-pandemic. 

Thick forests and myriad lakes stretch across rural Wisconsin and Michigan. At least two Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa operate casinos in these remote destinations.

The Lac Vieux Desert (LVD) Band has allocated some of its 1,600 acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for its Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet. The 25,000-square-foot facility touts 500 video and reel slots, video poker and video Keno, table games, an in-house progressive jackpot, and wagering from a penny to $10.

“We’re a small Tribe [760 members] who began gaming in 1988 and built our current casino in 1996,” says LVD Tribal Chairman James Williams, Jr.

For roughly a decade, the casino funneled about 85 percent of its revenue to Tribal administration and services. But when the 2008 recession hit, things took a turn for the worse.

“It’s been devastating since then, as that figure continued to decline to the point that by 2017, there was a zero percent transfer, because revenue generation had dropped so much. Today, we’re having to cut expenses while trying to get patrons to visit us again,” Chairman Williams says.

John Neumann, the casino’s general manager, is working on needed changes: “We’re constantly looking at demographics and how we can get more people to our area, currently focusing on repeat business we get from seasonal visitors who come here to enjoy our 600 lakes,” he says. “We’re catering more to them and being more proactive in our direct marketing efforts.”

The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians owns Sevenwinds Casino, Lodge & Conference Center in Hayward, Wisconsin. The gaming floor features slots, reels, poker, Keno, table games, blackjack, craps and roulette. Photo Credit: Justin Ewert (Instagram: @justin.ewert)

In the meantime, “We’ve reduced our pit, our table game capacity, because they’re expensive to run. And we’ve had to cut some jobs, going bare bones on what we need to do to keep the facility running,” Neumann added.

On a brighter note, the Chairman says other activities are generating needed income. “Tribal lending capabilities have been a God-send for our revenue generation, and our online lending opportunity is bringing in revenue that allowed us to recently build a $14 million healthcare clinic. Looking into the future, we’re talking about an Internet sports book. Michigan has a new law coming out that would allow that and a new amenity for our casino would draw in a different clientele. We’re facing a lot of challenges and exploring different ways to bring a gaming audience through our doors.”

Meanwhile, across the state line and into Wisconsin, the 3,000-member Lac Courte Oreilles Band have converted some of their natural surroundings into casino action with two attractions — Sevenwinds Casino, Lodge & Conference Center on the reservation border at Hayward, featuring slots, reels, poker, Keno, table games, blackjack, craps and roulette. A smaller facility, Grindstone Creek Casino, sits within the reservation itself, four miles away.

Local gaming enthusiasts know how to find their way, but the rural nature of the venues — “where Highway K intersects with Highway E” or “on County Road B” — can deter some traffic. Though the remote location can also attract more overnight stays.

The casinos are working hard to improve their draw, because new money is important to the Tribe’s general fund. Fresh dollars create jobs, “which we were in dire need of prior to the arrival of gaming,” says Jason Weaver, Secretary-Treasurer of the Tribal Council.

Located 45 minutes from the nearest freeway and more than an hour in any direction away from major metro areas, the area is a tourist draw despite the journey required to get there.

LVD Band Chairman James Williams, Jr. 

“Deciduous forests abound in our 80,000 square miles, inviting anglers, hunters, mountain bikers and skiers, that represent seasonal tourist revenue for us, but we rely most heavily on casino revenue. It’s our big money maker and a large portion — about 80 percent of our Tribal general fund — comes from casino action,” says Weaver. “The casinos are also important to us, because they’re job developers for our people as our gaming opportunities employ an annual average of 300 employees.”

Outdoor activities help buttress the financial bottom line, according to Weaver, who sits on his county’s economic development committee because, as he noted: “As the Tribe goes, so too does the county and its associated communities.

“We’ve learned we have more power in marketing by utilizing partnerships and working together to become a world-class destination that people want for outdoor activities with amenities. We have three large lakes within our boundaries and thousands of acres of national forest, so fishing and hunting bring in tourist dollars as does the largest cross-country skiing event in America.”

As both Tribes continue working hard to attract a gaming audience to their rural surroundings, LVD Band Chairman Williams notes: “We stay here, not for the economy, but for the beauty.  The remoteness is both a blessing and a challenge, and we invite others to join us in enjoying it.”