When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut for three months in 2020, its owners, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, had to reckon with decades of relying heavily on gambling as the tribe's main source of revenue.
“The fact that the casino revenues went from millions to zero overnight just fully reiterated the need for diverse revenue streams,” said Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler.
The 1,000-member tribe has since expanded its efforts to get into the federal government contracting business, making it one of several tribal nations to look beyond the casino business more seriously after the coronavirus crisis. Tribal leaders and tribal business experts say the global pandemic has been the latest and clearest sign that tribal governments with casinos can't depend solely on slot machines and poker rooms to support future generations.
In Michigan, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, or Gun Lake Tribe, recently announced a 25-year plan to develop hundreds of acres near its casino into a corridor with housing, retail, manufacturing and a new 15-story hotel. A non-gambling entity owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, also in Michigan, is now selling “NativeWahl” burger franchises to other tribes after forming a 2021 partnership with Wahlburgers, the national burger chain created by the celebrity brothers Paul, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg.
Some tribes, with and without casinos, have gotten involved in a wide range of non-gambling businesses, such as trucking, construction, consulting, health care, real estate, cannabis and marketing over the past decade or longer while others have been branching out more recently.
“While enterprise diversification can come with costs, its necessity became clear during the early phases of the pandemic, when tribally owned casinos were shut down to mitigate COVID-19 transmission and gaming-dependent tribes were left with little incoming revenue,” according to a new report from the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
The report found that many tribes are increasingly doing business with the federal government, especially the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Mashantucket Pequots' non-gambling entity, Command Holdings, last year made its largest acquisition to date: WWC Global, a Florida-based management consulting firm that predominantly works with federal agencies, including the defense and state departments. WWC announced in December that it had been awarded a $37.5 million contract supporting the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
WWC Global CEO Jon Panamaroff applauded the Mashantucket Pequots' casino and hospitality business but noted that it can be subject to the “ups and downs of the market,” making it important to branch out economically. A member of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, Alaska, he credited the Mashantucket Pequots' tribal leaders with doubling down on diversification efforts during the pandemic instead of “shying away and trying to hunker down.”
Butler said the tribe hopes non-gambling revenues, including from a planned family resort with a 91,000-square-foot (8,450-square-meter) water park that's expected to open in 2025, will eventually comprise 50% to 80% of the Mashantucket Pequots' portfolio, providing “stability and certainty” when another challenging event undoubtedly will happen.
“You think about the financial crisis in ’08 and now COVID. And so, something’s going to happen again,” Butler said. “We’ve learned from past mistakes, and we want to be ready for it in the future.”
Even before the pandemic hit, some tribal casinos were already facing competitive pressures from the advent of other gambling options, including legalized online wagering on sports and casino games in some states. At the same time, traditional patrons of brick-and-mortar casinos are getting older.
“Tribal economies are at an inflection point because gaming markets are maturing across the U.S.,” said Dawson Her Many Horses, head of Native American banking for Wells Fargo and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. “As casino revenues flatten, tribes will be looking for new business opportunities in other industries.”
Terri Fitzpatrick, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's chief real estate and global attraction officer, has noted “tremendous growth” in non-gambling-related tribal businesses over the last decade in Michigan. Most tribes within the state now engage in some form of economic development other than casinos.
The pandemic, Fitzpatrick said, really highlighted the importance of such a strategy, given the financial impact of COVID-19 on tribal schools, health care centers, assistance for older adults, day care programs and other services.
“It wasn’t about a loss of revenue," she said. “It was a loss of, ‘What we can do for our community and in our community.'”
The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in Michigan saw its successful casino shut down in the early months of the pandemic. But the financial blow was blunted in part by the tribe's non-gambling businesses, including a firm that's involved in drone development for the federal government and was deemed “essential.”
The tribe's economic development entity, Waséyabek Development Company LLC, now has mapped out a plan to generate at least one-third of the revenue needed to support the tribe from activities other than gambling by 2040, its president and CEO, Deidra Mitchell, said.
That doesn’t mean tribes are giving up on gambling. Some are even expanding it. The gambling and hospitality entity owned by the Mohegan Tribe in eastern Connecticut announced this month it is partnering with a New York developer to try and secure a New York City gambling license and build a proposed entertainment district in Manhattan's East Side. Meanwhile, the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma is part of another consortium that wants to build a casino and entertainment complex on New York's Coney Island.
The National Indian Gaming Association reported in August that $39 billion in gross gambling revenue was generated in fiscal year 2021, the most in tribal gambling history. That figure, which accounts for 243 tribes across 29 states, increased 40% over the previous year.
Patrick Davison, vice president of Native American gaming and finance at PNC Bank, said he’s been working with tribal officials who still want to build casinos but also want to avoid overbuilding. He said the pandemic was “a real eye-opener for tribes” as officials consider their tribes' futures in the gambling business.
“There’s a lot more thought being put into it,” he said.