COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — After nearly a year of construction and even longer in planning and legal proceedings, the Ilani Casino Resort is taking shape.
The $510 million, 368,000-square-foot casino sits west of Exit 16 on Interstate 5, with three Cascade peaks in the distance. A newly dubbed road, Cowlitz Way, cuts in front. But the imposing center remains surrounded by gravel and construction crews.
“We are close to 75 percent completed,” Ilani president and general manager Kara Fox-LaRose said.
The project, jointly developed by the Cowlitz Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Indians in Connecticut, broke ground in January. Tribal representatives now say the project, plus a $32 million upgrade to the nearby freeway interchange, is on pace for a scheduled April opening.
Fox-LaRose and other Ilani executives — the casino currently boasts just 12 full-time staffers — led a tour of the gaming facility last week.
The project is still far from matching some of its grandiose concept art, but it’s well underway. Construction crews move between scaffolds around the casino, surrounded by the sounds of whirring saws and the gravel-flattening tires of heavy machinery.
The interior is still mostly sheetrock. Pillars are decorated and lit. Acoustic baffles hanging from the ceiling are paneled with tribal symbols. A large, decorative bar dominates the center.
“I think it’s absolutely beautiful. I cannot believe the amount of work that has been done,” said Tracy Anderson, a public relations employee who last visited the site in June. “Bottom line, it was just a big open construction space where now it’s really taking shape as a beautiful project.”
The design and architecture is overseen by Las Vegas and Newport Beach, Calif.-based Friedmutter Group, which has designed projects such as The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and Studio City Macau in China.
“In terms of the design, Friedmutter spent a lot of time with the Cowlitz Tribe learning about their heritage,” Fox-LaRose said.
“It’s really about the experience,” Fox-LaRose said. “It’s about the long road the Cowlitz have traveled, building up to today.”
No tenants have been announced for the 15 open spaces set aside for shops, bars and restaurants. The casino recently made headlines for efforts to fill 1,000 job openings in the coming months. Most of the hiring won’t occur until January.
Combined with the 30,000-square-foot event center at the rear of the casino, which won’t open until fall 2017, the cavernous spaces portend a lot of foot traffic.
Fox-LaRose said the tribe expects 4.5 million visitors annually.
“There’s seasonal impact we’re taking into consideration and we’re working through the details on the number of seats as we develop restaurant space,” Fox-LaRose said.
The casino’s expansive, 100,000-square-foot gaming floor is striped with metal wires that will power 2,500 slot machines and 75 tables. A walkway, where crews have been installing porcelain tiles, encircles the floor.
The casino has not yet settled on what games it will offer. Fox-LaRose said there will be “lots of different themes and varieties,” but they do not plan to offer poker.
The gaming space will also include a small, open lounge area in the corner of the gaming space that will host live music.