The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe faces a nearly $6 million shortfall, due in large part to dropping revenues at the Prairie Knights Casino in recent months. The casino's manager now steps up to the challenge of bringing back the tribe's critical business. 

The casino was already struggling, like many businesses, with the effects of a slowed economy and a snowy winter. Add to that an influx of freezing Dakota Access Pipeline protesters seeking refuge from winter storms and closure of the casino’s main access road.

“It’s like it’s fallen off a cliff,” said tribal CFO Jerome Long Bottom. “When the bridge was shut off, the numbers just plummeted.”

The tribal council's budget for this year no longer adds up, due to the lost revenue. So, the tribe will face tough choices as soon as April about what to fund, Long Bottom said.

To date, the tribal council has supplemented a portion of the income lost from the casino with $3.2 million in donations raised from its NoDAPL account.

“That’s only going to get us so far,” Long Bottom said.

How fast things turn around at the casino will depend on how quickly N.D. Highway 1806 is reopened and how long it takes to repair damaged relationships with the casino’s customer base.

“I don’t know how bad the perception is,” Long Bottom said, unsure how closely people associated controversy over the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline with the casino.

On a weeknight evening last week, the scene at Prairie Knights seemed typical — a row of perm-headed women were among about 50 people seated in front of the slot machines.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” said a man settled in front of a machine flashing with winning marks.

In the restaurant, a dozen or so diners milled about the buffet lines, mounding their plates; a boy skipped past the gift shop on his way back to his room.

But concert and visitor attendance are down over the past several months, according to E.J. Iron Eyes, the general manager.

“I’m looking for things to improve as we move into summer,” said Iron Eyes, who is launching a public relations campaign to draw customers back to the casino.

Iron Eyes emphasizes the protests were not the only problem.

In early December, Patricia Kuntz, of Bismarck, sat gambling at a slot machine. She said she worried about taking the longer route through the bad winter weather.

But for her, the polarizing protest was a factor, too. Who knew if there would be protests blocking the roads?

“We used to come a lot. We don’t anymore,” Kuntz said. “I felt kind of unsafe coming down.”

That’s a perception the venue is trying to overcome.

The casino usually serves an older demographic coming from surrounding North Dakota cities, including Bismarck-Mandan, Jamestown and Minot, Iron Eyes said. There is a hotel, gambling casino and monthly country and rock concerts. Daily buses from the Bismarck-Mandan area and surrounding towns, ferry residents for a day at the slots.

But in December, casino regulars, such as Kuntz, found themselves mingling with a new mix of guests from across the U.S. who traveled to Standing Rock to protest a pipeline project they strongly opposed.

Following days of December storms, snowy, overall-clad protesters marched through the hallways as if denizens of an otherworldly ski lodge. Iron Eyes said these scenes were ones management put an end to, asking people to leave the property when policies were violated. Yet, near the check-in desk, friends sat for more than an hour playing a guitar alongside an audience of protesters and their pet dog. Others drank free coffee, glad for a break from the elements, or dozed in armchairs despite the “no loitering” signs posted just above their heads.

Kuntz said in December she didn’t plan to boycott the place, as some have recommended, but she was unlikely to return until the protest was over.

“I’ll come back again sometime,” said Kuntz, who pointed out protesters poring over their cell phones at the bar. “If they get everything cleaned up and stuff.”

Important to the tribe

The casino is important to the tribe. 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, said Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. The casino employs 350 people, about 60 percent of which are from Standing Rock.

Long Bottom said he is unable to share information on the casino’s revenues but said a 2012 economic development strategy report stating the casino brought in $12.6 million in net revenues to the tribal government in 2010 is, “high compared to what we’re faced with now.”

With the aid of the NoDAPL funds, Long Bottom said the tribe essentially has enough money to keep its programs afloat at current funding levels through April. After that, it faces a balancing act.

Council members can cut back on the programs the districts rely upon, but many of those are set expenses and Long Bottom is not sure a slowdown in spending is going to be enough to offset the loss. Another option is to dip into the casino’s savings account, which takes away from or delays planned reinvestments into that business. They could also reach into the NoDAPL account again if the funding is there.

“Something is going to get shorted,” he said.

Staying neutral

Iron Eyes said the position he has taken throughout the protest was one of manager trying to run a business, staying neutral amid the strong feelings on both sides. All were greeted as guests, welcome to stay unless they broke hotel policy and caused excessive problems.

The steps he took — signage, closed facilities — were done of necessity, he indicated. The staff couldn’t keep up maintenance on the heavily used public bathrooms, and there were safety hazards to people sitting about on the floor, he said. Sometimes, he had to charge people extra who broke hotel policy, smoking in the rooms or pilfering towels.

“We’ve had heavy use,” he said of the hotel.

Justin Emerys, a protester from Colorado, described the casino’s role as dual for the protesters. It was a warm place to get a good night’s sleep and a shower. But it was also a place to have a drink or play some games, which was not allowed in the camps.

On a late November night, he took out a room with two friends, and they allowed 30 to 40 people to shower, he said. When they ran out of towels, they borrowed some from the pool.

“That’s taxing on the resources here, but we don’t have access to those resources,” Emerys said. “A lot of people here are trying to make as little impact as possible. There’s also people here who — most people have a sense of entitlement.”

Emerys noted that casino staff had been very accommodating and generous to the hundreds coming through.

While Iron Eyes concedes there have been difficulties, he emphasizes that many of the swirling rumors are not true: The casino is not broke or being bought out by another tribe and there were no gunshots in the parking lot, he said. And alcohol incidents, while up some, did not spike in a big way.

The influence of alcohol was intermittently evident in December. In one instance, a man who smelled of alcohol tried to sell a dream catcher for $20 to a Tribune reporter.

Daniel Bluebird, of Wounded Knee, S.D., who described himself as a member of camp security, was taking a break for a day at the lodge. Along with the dream catcher, he wanted to show a bruised hand he suffered from a recent altercation with police on the Backwater Bridge.

This is not what customers would experience today, but it has all had something of a chilling effect on visitation from Bismarck-Mandan residents, who are among the casino’s key customers.

Effects in Bismarck

Dropping business at the casino is not only felt on the reservation. The casino purchased $9.1 million of goods and services from 267 North Dakota businesses in 2016, including $6.7 million from 224 businesses in Bismarck-Mandan.

Shannon McQuade-Ely of McQuades Distributing said her sales to the casino, one of the beer distributor’s larger customers, were down slightly to 6 percent for 2016 and down 2 percent in the fourth quarter. She said the main factor was decreased attendance at concerts.

“Any time a big business is down it affects us,” she said.

Greg Ehli, general manager of AmeriPride in Bismarck, which launders the hotel rugs and linens, said they have not really seen a slow down in the services they supply but said: "Less business (for the casino) is less business for everybody and we're willing to do anything on our side to help them out .... They're a class act down there, the people managing the casino."

Nightlife Limousine, which credits a healthy share of its business to corporate and group trips to the casino, didn’t get a single request in December, according to owner Rick Berge. A year prior, the company sent 17 limos and buses to the venue for company holiday parties or other events. In the first few months of the year, he has only seen a couple requests.

“Entertainment sources in North Dakota are somewhat limited, because we’re a rural state,” Berge said. “I’m thinking at a certain point it’s going to come back.”

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