Finances at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Prairie Knights Casino are on the mend.

Tribal Chairman Mike Faith said the tribe’s budget is slowly improving and the casino is reporting better numbers.

“It’s a slow recovery, but it is on the incline,” Faith said.

In February, the tribe faced a nearly $6 million shortfall, due in large part to dropping revenues at the casino during the height of the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline protest.

The casino is the tribe’s largest business venture. It funds programs within each of the reservation’s eight districts: insurance and bonding, heating assistance, food distribution, programs for the elderly and veterans, health programs, such as for those with diabetes and addictions, fire and ambulance services, solid waste, water and sewer, as well as K-12 education and the Head Start program, according to former Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II.

In February, Tribal CFO Jerome Long Bottom said he was unable to share information on the casino’s revenues but said a 2012 economic development strategy report stated the casino brought in $12.6 million in net revenues to the tribal government in 2010.

The closure of Highway 1806, the casino’s main access road, during the protest, coupled with blizzards, led to a decline of visitors to the venue late last year and early this year.

But on Oct. 21, about 2,000 people piled into the casino’s pavilion for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“That’s the highest we’ve had for a while,” said LaRoy Kingsley of KK Bold, who does marketing for the casino.

Kingsley said attendance for Charlie Pride was good, too.

E.J. Iron Eyes, the casino's general manager, said attendance for concerts usually averages 1,000 to 1,500.

“We’re pretty close to where we were two years ago,” said Iron Eyes, who calculated visitorship at about 90 percent of its peak in 2015.

Bismarck resident Lil Spravzoff traveled to Prairie Knights with a group on a Harlow's bus last week. She doesn't get to the casino as much as she used to. Before her husband died, the pair loved going to the concerts, especially Charlie Pride.

"I'm having a good time," she said of her return to the venue.

Iron Eyes said the casino started to see a difference in numbers right away when Highway 1806 opened and the tribe has returned to funding much of its programming.

The casino also will have the money on hand it needs for investments. Iron Eyes said the business has been looking to purchase a number of new slot machines, something they like to do annually to keep the venue fresh.

“We’ve made up a lot of ground,” he said.

Another important function of Prairie Knights Casino is employment.

The casino employs about 350 people. Of that, 76 percent of employees are Native American, and 64 percent of managers and supervisors are Native American.

“If you hit 30 percent, that’s considered a success," Kingsley said of standards set by the National Indian Gaming Association.

About 35 percent of casino employees live in Bismarck-Mandan, contributing back to those communities and the casino does from $7 million to $8 million worth of business with Bismarck-Mandan companies.

Iron Eyes said it has been a tough few months but they’re back to business.

“We were fortunate to come through things as well as we have,” he said.

The casino pavilion's next major entertainment event is country music act BlackHawk, playing Dec. 9.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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Business Reporter