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Rolling Thunder

Pueblo of Pojoaque celebrate opening of New Mexico casino

Rolling Thunder

The Buffalo Thunder Resort Casino in New Mexico is billed as bringing Las Vegas to Santa Fe. For the grand opening ceremony on August 3, this meant an appearance by the Flying Elvi and a couple of show girls. But in a more real sense, the collaborative project between the Pueblo of Pojoaque and Hilton Hotels brings the aesthetics and amenities usually seen in Las Vegas resorts to what is now the largest resort in New Mexico.

The $300 million property, designed by Thalden Boyd Emery Architects and constructed by Balfour Beatty, is a pueblo-styled building popular in northern New Mexico. It features artwork from all of the tribes of New Mexico, a point of pride for Pueblo of Pojoaque Governor George Rivera.

“It’s a matter of paying respect to the arts and the culture that is really what makes the Indian people who they are,” Rivera says. “We want to ensure that is recognized and continues.”

The resort features 60,000 square feet of gaming space, including a 10-table poker room, 66,000 square feet of meeting space, a spa and a 36-hole golf course. The property also has 395 hotel rooms, which are being operated by Hilton in its first partnership with a gaming tribe.

Ian Carter, president of global operations for Hilton Hotels Corporation, says the company was immediately impressed by the tribe’s plans for the resort when first approached seven years ago under then-Governor Jacob Villareal.

“Once we saw the plans and the vision that both governors had to make a resort of this quality, it was a pretty easy decision,” Carter says.

The resort is the culmination of more than 15 years of economic development for a tribe that was instrumental in bringing tribal gaming to New Mexico. (Villareal threatened to shut down traffic on the highway that runs through the tribal land if the state would not ratify gaming compacts.) While other tribes, most notably the Mescalero, were initially more successful with their gaming ventures, Rivera says with Buffalo Thunder, the Pueblo of Pojoaque are now the leaders of New Mexico gaming.

“Governor Villareal learned his economic lessons from our friend, the late president of the Mescalero Tribe Wendell Chino,” Rivera says. “President Chino liked to say that the Pueblos make pottery, the Navajos make jewelry and the Mescaleros make money. Today, the Pueblo makes pottery, Pojoaque makes jewelry and Pojoaque makes money.

“Just like we learned from other tribes and their businesses and developments, now, they’ll be learning from us.”

Buffalo Thunder is ultimately more than just a destination resort, a fact touched on by Barry Thalden of Thalden Boyd Emery.

“Our mission at Thalden Boyd Architects is to improve the lives of Native Americans through the development of spectacular, creative and successful resorts and casinos,” Thalden says. “This represents more than just a building. To us, and to the Pueblo of Pojoaque, this represents the future of their children and their children’s children.”

Through the various businesses it owns, the tribe has been able to develop scholarship programs for private primary schooling as well as secondary institutions. It has put together early child care programs and programs to benefit senior citizens. It also funds a 50,000-square-foot recreation center that is open to the public.

“When we got into developing the businesses, we had done a needs analysis of the community,” Rivera says. “As the businesses grew and started producing revenue, we had the needs analysis and started addressing the social issues line-by-line.”

With the new resort, the tribe will be in an even stronger position to provide education, health care and employment opportunities to tribal members.

“It’s the direction we want our future to go,” Rivera says. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about the survival of the people and the education of the people. Those are the reasons why we move forward in this direction and that’s why I’m committed to the project.”

Greg Jones was associate editor of Global Gaming Business magazine and managing editor of Casino Connection Nevada until September 2009.

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