The Nooksack Indian Tribe, whose casinos have been plagued by financial problems for years, closes one of its Whatcom County casinos.
While still advertising a New Year’s Eve buffet on its website, the Nooksack River Casino abruptly closed Thursday night.
“We just got word this morning,” said Michelle Roberts, a former human-resources manager for the casino, one of two in Whatcom County run by the Nooksack Indian Tribe. “Last night after 11, they shut the business down.”
On Friday, a person who answered the phone at the Deming casino and identified himself as a security employee confirmed the business was out of operation.
Tribal chairman Bob Kelly could not be reached for comment.
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The tribe’s casinos have been plagued by financial problems for years and have prompted long-running legal battles between the tribe and lenders seeking to collect on their loans.
In the summer, Kelly announced at a tribal meeting that the tribe might have to close the River Casino, Roberts recalled.
“There was so much backlash from the membership,” she said, that the tribal council decided not to act at that time. She added that the casino, as the tribe’s first business, is “like an iconic thing for the Nooksack.”
Other tribal casinos have run into trouble. The Lummi Casino closed in 1997 due to competition from Canada, and the Skokomish tribe shuttered a casino in 2009 as Indian gaming experienced a downturn during the recession.
The River Casino was also hit by the recession and faced competition from other casinos in this state and in Canada. Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, said the Nooksack’s newer Northwood Casino in Lynden “performs better and is better located to attract the Canadian market.”
“It is a tough call for them, as it employed a lot of Nooksack citizens. But it was just a simple business decision,” Allen added.
Yet, Roberts sees an additional factor at work with the Nooksack: For the last three years, the tribe has been trying to disenroll 306 of its members, including the former human-resources manager, resulting in another protracted legal fight.
“If they weren’t so focused on putting all their energy into disenrollment, they could have put more energy into the business,” she said.