COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — Against the monochromatic winter sky, a black screen 100 feet in the air flashes a message:
“Let’s play. Let’s ilani,” it reads, invoking the Cowlitz Indian Tribe word for “sing” and the namesake of the upcoming casino. The new sign then reads, “Ilani Casino Resort. Coming spring 2017.”
The new sign, which includes the 25-foot-by-40-foot electronic billboard, will soon promote upcoming concerts and comedy shows to Interstate 5 drivers. For now the sign teases with stock photos of people eating and laughing. Ilani could reveal its opening day “in a couple weeks,” said Kara Fox-LaRose, president and general manager.
“We’re in early March and we’re planning on mid-April” for the casino’s grand opening, said Fox-LaRose. “It’s amazing to see the progress made to date.”
The complex has been under construction since January 2016. Behind the $510 million project’s doors, many projects are congealing. The 368,000-square-foot gaming center is nearly complete, as is a new freeway interchange, new roads and infrastructure.
The casino, west of the freeway at Exit 16, is being jointly developed by the Cowlitz and the Mohegan Tribe of Indians in Connecticut.
Ilani Casino Resort is not yet fully staffed, Fox-LaRose said. The casino has been on a hiring blitz since December, hoping to staff 1,000 people by opening day.
There are currently 200 on the payroll, she said, plus 800 who have been hired but have not yet started training. Departments have hired “across the board,” from the gaming sector to information technology to human resources.
“We have several team members in every department at this point working on standard operating procedures and internal controls,” she said. “We’ve started training already. There is representation in every department.”
More employees are yet to be hired. Recruiting events are still taking place and a number of people are enrolled in the casino’s proprietary dealer school, learning to work games from blackjack to craps. Graduates will audition for a casino job.
Tenants of the casino could add hundreds of employees as well. There will be a dozen restaurants — ranging from quick-service meals to gourmet restaurants — three retail shops and an “interactive” area that was once rumored to indicate a bowling alley, Fox-LaRose said.
None of the tenants have been revealed yet. However, they have signed agreements, Fox-LaRose said, and their names will be announced before the grand opening.
Aside from finishing the actual gaming complex, Ilani Casino Resort awaits the completion of some nearby infrastructure projects.
Crews from the San Francisco firm Swinerton Builders have worked weekends and overtime to make up for time lost during a snowy winter, said Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall, in order to complete the $32 million overhaul of the I-5 interchange in April.
“We’re happy to have the quality of labor and assistance that we have on this project,” he said. “We’re doing very well, budget and schedule both.”
The rebuild of the interchange include a four-lane overpass with bicycle and pedestrian paths. Two roundabouts will bookend the overpass, designed to ease traffic flows without stoplights.
The tribe has predicted 4.5 million visitors every year, underscoring the importance of a new-and-improved interchange. Casino officials have reiterated that Ilani will not open before the interchange is complete.
The biggest project left, according to Iyall, is concrete work on the on- and off-ramps. He said that if the weather cooperates the work could be done by April 1.
The other construction projects to be completed are a wastewater treatment apparatus and a sewer line that extends from the overpass to the city limits of La Center. Those are a couple weeks from their first field tests, Fox-LaRose said.
Once opened, the casino will provide close to 2,500 gaming machines and 75 gaming tables. Games offered will be blackjack, roulette, craps, mini-baccarat, Pai Gow poker, three-card poker, Ultimate Texas Hold ’em and Spanish 21.
Fox-LaRose said those games were chosen after researching which games the locals seem to like most.
“We look at the market mix and kind of take a look to see what games are popular in the area,” she said, adding that blackjack is expected to be popular because “it’s kind of common ground, where people feel most comfortable.”
The concourse encircling the gaming floor will lead attendants to shops, restaurants and a 350-seat entertainment lounge for live music or comedy.
About 35 percent of the gaming area will be nonsmoking. Combined with nonsmoking policies in the entertainment venues, about 75 percent of the indoor property favors those who do not smoke. A high-powered ventilation system aims to circulate the cleanest indoor air possible, Fox-LaRose said.
“This is a region where a lot of public spaces are nonsmoking,” she said. “It tends to be popular in gaming venues. (But) the way we’ve built the infrastructure is to accommodate a broader audience. So we’ve decided to expand the nonsmoking space.”
Indoor smoking bans do not apply to buildings on Native American land, such as the casino, due to tribes’ recognition by the federal government as sovereign entities.
Left on the table
Even after its opening, the casino isn’t likely to show its whole hand.
Fox-LaRose alluded to a potential gaming system that uses “other technologies” besides the traditional slots and card games.
“All of the newest and latest technology you see in the Washington market you’ll see here and we are very excited about that,” she said.
A planned 17,000-square-foot convention center will not open until the fall. The space will stage the headline entertainment and will be the setting for banquets and other large events, Fox-LaRose said.
Someday, at least two years from now, the casino could have its own hotel. The planned second phase of the casino resort includes the 400-room hotel, but officials first want ensure the casino can sustain itself and a large capital project.
Fox-LaRose thinks that day will come, saying Ilani managers feel “confident that with the business and infrastructure opening, and the convention space, we’ll certainly benefit from a hotel.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the city where Swinerton is headquartered. They are headquartered in San Francisco.