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Norman, Okla.: Atmosphere of casino reflects its prairie home

In about two weeks, the casino review board will choose one of two applicants to build a Sumner County casino — Peninsula Gaming or Global Gaming Solutions. To see what their operations are like elsewhere, The Eagle visited casinos in Iowa and Oklahoma run by the two companies.

NORMAN, Okla. — It's hard to miss the Riverwind Casino as you drive in either direction along I-35 south of Norman, especially at night.

Sapphire blue waves undulate kinetically over its massive, low-slung facade, suggesting wind blowing over the Oklahoma prairie or a river flowing through the property.

The Riverwind, a sprawling, one-story casino-hotel complex covering 219,000 square feet on the west side of the highway, is the closest in size among Global Gaming Solutions' existing properties to the $280 million WinSpirit Casino it has proposed to build near Wellington.

Global Gaming, a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation, is competing with Peninsula Gaming of Dubuque, Iowa, for the right to build and manage a state-owned casino in Sumner County.

The Riverwind is one of 15 casinos owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation. It opened in 2006, two years before Global Gaming Solutions was created as a subsidiary, but Global CEO John Elliott and other company officers were involved in its development.

The Chickasaw also own and operate the WinStar World Casino near the Texas state line, and Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

In 2009, Global won a bid to operate a horse track, Lone Star Park, in Grand Prairie, Texas. The company was due to request a change in ownership at a meeting of the Texas Racing Commission recently, but withdrew the request at the last minute without explanation.

Global spokeswoman Kym Koch Thompson said the company remains committed to the project and will submit the request later.

Riverwind's amenities

The Riverwind design incorporates themes of the Chickasaw's land. The wind and water imagery created by the exterior lighting continues inside. Bright blue wave elements decorate massive vertical chandeliers inside one entrance, and wavy strands of multicolored lights crawl along the ceiling.

Wellington's casino would be done by the same architectural firm, Hnedak Bobo Group of Las Vegas and Memphis, but it would not look the same. Global has said the design would feature elements that take their cues from the architecture of main streets in Sumner County, with wheat and grain motifs.

The Riverwind's wind and wave theme is repeated on walls and frosted glass partitions inside the casino. The carpet is designed in swirls of greens, yellows and purples.

The layout creates a feeling of constant movement. Raised entrances inside the casino flow in a winding path through a forest of 2,400 festively lit, loudly chirping slot machines and 50 gaming tables.

The Chickasaw wouldn't release information about how much revenue those gambling devices produce. Nor would the tribe say how much it invested in the Riverwind.

In the middle of the casino is the round Energy Bar with a tornado-shaped vortex in the middle and a glass sculpture with swirl patterns above.

A "river" walkway of aquamarine tile circles the casino's perimeter. Children must remain on the walkway and not wander onto the casino floor.

The walkway leads to the Riverwind's food and entertainment amenities, including Autographs, a sports bar that includes as partners three former University of Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winners: Billy Sims, Steve Owens and Jason White.

Another former OU football star, Brian Bosworth, drove a motorcycle from Los Angeles to the casino, and it sits in a corner awaiting a giveaway event.

Other food venues include the Willows Buffet and a fast-food court with franchises including Burger King and Taco Bueno.

The casino's poker room was busy with about 50 players one recent weekday afternoon. The casino also features a dimly lit off-track betting parlor, with cubicles full of flat-screen monitors showing races from around the world.

The Showplace Theatre, with 1,500 seats on three levels, including a mezzanine with VIP seating and a balcony, is the casino's primary entertainment venue.

Acts as diverse as George Jones, Foreigner, Jewel, Gladys Knight, Merle Haggard, the Beach Boys, and Earth, Wind and Fire have appeared there.

A four-story, 100-room hotel is linked to the casino by a skywalk. Rooms go for $89 to $179 a night. It also has luxury suites, one with a 6-foot-high soaking tub.

The Governor's Suite has a wrap-around balcony, conference table, metal and ceramic wall art, and lavish furnishings for $399 a night.

"One of the nicer casinos around," said Riverwind customer Jim Hudgens, 43, a physical therapist from Yukon, Okla., as he stood amid the slot machines and country music played over the sound system. "Good environment. Good restaurants and buffet."

Delores Burris, a retired federal worker from Oklahoma City who visits the Riverwind once a month and usually loses at the slots, used to live in casino-stocked Shreveport, La. She likes the Riverwind better than those.

"It's just a very nice place. It's clean and the people are friendly," she said.

Abby Beals, a blackjack day-shift supervisor at the Riverwind who has worked at other tribal casinos in Oklahoma, said the Chickasaw are considered the leaders in Oklahoma gaming.

"I feel like they're absolutely the most professional. They set very high standards and everybody knows what's expected of them. You have to be accountable for your actions, and other casinos where I've worked, that wasn't so much the case," she said.

Community contributions

The tribe has been generous to nearby communities. It gave $1.7 million to build a sewage treatment plant for Goldsby, and $2.1 million for a water tower in Newcastle.

The Chickasaw and Chocktaw tribes each donated $1.5 million to endow chairs for diabetes research at the University of Oklahoma, amounts matched by the state.

The Chickasaw also donated $250,000 to expand one of Newcastle's fire stations southeast of the city, a mile and a half from the casino, and provide living accommodations. That has cut response time on calls from the area by 50 to 70 percent, said Newcastle Fire Chief Kevin Self.

Calls used to go the main station in downtown Newcastle, 10 miles away, and it took 12 to 15 minutes to reach an emergency from there.

"I was really glad to see it. It was kind of unsettling to have that kind of response time," Self said.

Trucks from the new station now can get to a scene in the area within 5 or 6 minutes, he said.

The tribe has worked to find out how to get involved in the Norman community, said Kristin Collins, president of the United Way of Norman.

"I know people feel strongly one way or another with gambling, and I don't have a comment either way on that," she said. "But I do have to say the nation and the casino have been really wonderful community partners."

The Riverwind has allowed United Way to host its signature annual fundraising event, a "celebrity sing" featuring local and regional talent, at its Showplace Theatre for no charge.

Attendance has doubled as a result, Collins said. Last year's event raised $40,000 for United Way's annual campaign.

Tom Sherman, president of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, said the Riverwind "out of the blue" gave "a high-six-figure" gift to help build a new high school in Purcell.

It also gave a substantial amount to renovate the chamber building in Norman, he said.

Far from hurting business in the area as some feared, the Riverwind has brought new patrons who stay, eat and shop there, he said.

"I think it's been a financial benefit, more so than we expected," Sherman said.

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