Following the nine-month closure of its cardroom, the Oak Tree Restaurant in Woodland is reinstating gaming.
While the previous iteration of the restaurant and cardroom failed last December after being open less than a year, the ownership team behind the new-look Oak Tree says it won't repeat past mistakes.
"We're going to do our best to run things better than the last owners," said Wally Fitzwater, an Oak Tree spokesman. "We're certainly going to make sure things work, and we think we can."
In February, an ownership group called Lucky 21 Casino bought the Oak Tree from OT Enterprises LLC. The prior owners had worked to rebrand the historic restaurant and banquet space as a gambling establishment -- one that was conveniently located off Interstate 5. Financial problems, including mounting tax liabilities and unpaid wages, resulted in the Oak Tree shuttering its doors before Christmas Eve.
The group behind Lucky 21 reopened the Oak Tree's restaurant in May while it awaited liquor and gaming licenses from the state.
Lucky 21 received its license from the Washington State Gambling Commission earlier this month, said Chris Spencer, the cardroom's shift manager. The casino is currently in a soft-opening phase and will have a grand opening by the end of the month, although managers don't yet have a fixed date.
With renovations completed, card sharks will have more to look at. The cardroom has been renovated to appear more modern. It will also offer Chinese and American food. A sushi bar may be added in the future, Spencer said.
Managers say they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars gutting and renovating the Oak Tree's cavernous 48,000 square-foot interior, which includes the restaurant and cardroom.
"It's a higher-class casino look now," Spencer said. "We went all out."
With the cardroom opening, the Oak Tree now employs around 200 people, Spencer said, including roughly 60 employees who were laid off in December.
Dan Yan, a Portland-based chiropractor who owns other bars and restaurants in the Portland area, is the principal backer of the new ownership group. Although the Oak Tree is Yan's first cardroom, the three-man managerial team has more than 36 years of experience running casinos, Spencer said.
He's confident the cardroom will attract a thriving customer base because it will feature games not available at nearby cardrooms, including those in La Center. That city, just seven miles away, is home to four established casinos.
In its year of operation, the Oak Tree's previous ownership group, OT Enterprises, was never able to find a foothold in the local gambling market, and revenue projections failed to meet expectations. Woodland's share of the gambling tax last year was roughly $63,000, one third of what the city anticipated.
OT Enterprises also had trouble paying state and property taxes last year. The Washington State Department of Revenue issued a tax warrant on Dec. 19 that effectively shuttered Oak Tree.
Spencer said the new Oak Tree will emphasize a total customer experience to drum up repeat business.
"The biggest thing we strive for is customer service and entertainment value that no casino around here has," he said.