Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Pennsylvania offered for casinos to defer their first quarter payments. Wind Creek Hospitality, the business arm of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, paid its $2.5 million host fee to the city of Bethlehem anyway.
Wind Creek Bethlehem, purchased by the Poarch Band in May 2019, has been closed since March 15, and all 12 of Pennsylvania’s casinos were ordered closed by the state on March 17.
Wind Creek Hospitality (also known as PCI Gaming) wanted to stay in Bethlehem’s good graces. “We understand that the community need is as great as ever, and we wanted to ensure the funds were delivered as planned,” said Kathy McCracken, general manager of Wind Creek Bethlehem.
The Poarch Band Creek started gaming operations in Alabama, the Tribe’s home state, about a decade ago. Its Wind Creek Hospitality division has been expanding ever since, with Wind Creek Bethlehem its largest acquisition yet. Wind Creek Hospitality closed on a deal to buy the casino resort, previously known as the Bethlehem Sands, for $1.3 billion from Las Vegas Sands Corporation on May 30th. Since fall 2019, the Tribe has been campaigning to build a casino in the Chicago area, but that plan is likely in a holding pattern due to COVID-19.
In a year-over-year comparison, Wind Creek Bethlehem’s losses in March were the highest among casinos in Pennsylvania, dropping from $51 million in 2019 to $15 million — a 71% decline. But that’s probably a less meaningful statistic than the April number — every casino in the country is seeing a 100% loss of on-premises gaming revenue, as all are currently shuttered. (Online gaming, which has seen a rise in revenue, will provide a small amount of relief for casinos that offer it — but Wind Creek Bethlehem doesn’t.)
While paying the $2.5 million host fee in a time of uncertainty is the sort of move that raises eyebrows, it’s not out of character for the Poarch Band. When Native Business spoke with Stephanie Bryan, the Poarch Band Tribal CEO and Chairman, last year, she made clear that her vision is about not only success, but specifically financial independence and self-reliance. She said she was particularly proud of the Tribe’s handling of the Wind Creek Atmore casino resort in Alabama. The Tribe built the facility themselves, and have chosen to manage it on their own, rather than contracting with a large non-Native casino chain. “When we decided to build it, we had no debt and we were worried about taking out loans,” she told Native Business. “We worked hard, we were careful with our money, and we were able to pay off the seven-year loan in about two years. That allowed us to establish a reputation for being good businesspeople.”
Without a doubt, honoring the host fee to Bethlehem is another such reputation-burnishing move. Meanwhile, the Tribe is taking steps to fight COVID as well. On April 14, it announced that a company in its portfolio, Muskogee Technology, is making personal protective equipment (PPE — masks and gowns) for Baptist Health Care. A week earlier, the Tribe announced a $1 million donation to the Atmore Community Hospital.