Desert Diamond Casino near Glendale opens to fanfare
The odds that West Valley gamblers will play closer to home are higher after thousands of visitors converged Sunday at the unveiling of the Tohono O'odham Nation's fourth Arizona casino, located near Glendale.
The southern Arizona tribe opened the doors of the $200 million Desert Diamond Casino West Valley Sunday afternoon more than a year since breaking ground in August 2014. Some patrons spent the night outside the gates of the casino, located in the area of 94th and Northern avenues to earn a spot at the front of a massive crowd eager to be among the first inside the new attraction.
"It's exciting to see how excited they are wanting to get in there; it's a good feeling," said Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Edward D. Manuel.
With nearly 1,100 electronic bingo-based gambling devices resembling slot machines, the 48,775-square-foot, temporary facility is bound to draw in residents from Glendale, Avondale, Surprise and Peoria to the West Valley's growing entertainment corridor along Loop 101, which includes Westgate Entertainment District and University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Since announcing development of the casino in 2009, the tribe has faced criticism and legal roadblocks from civic leaders and the local Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities for allegedly violating gaming compacts and its historical tribal-land stipulations.
The state permitted the tribe to construct the casino after the Tohono O'odham combated opponents by countering that federal law allowed it to replace flooded reservation land from the San Lucy District with the 135-acre Maricopa County parcel it acquired in 2003.
On Sunday, the controversial property debuted with one more hurdle: its classification as a Class 2 casino by the Arizona Department of Gaming. The department withheld the tribe's ability to house poker tables, blackjack tables and alcohol sales common in Class 3 Arizona tribal casinos after officials claimed the tribe committed fraud by leaving its plans for the casino undisclosed while negotiating its state gaming compact. American Indian tribes are allowed to negotiate such gaming compacts under a federal law adopted in 1988.
Tribal officials expect to expand the site eventually. Future phases at the 135 acres of former agricultural land include building a 440,000-square-foot permanent casino building in addition to a 400-room hotel.
Manuel said he was proud to deliver gaming entertainment to a region he described as a growing destination.
"It will make money not only for us but the communities here," he said. "Glendale and the surrounding communities have been supportive because they know that it will create employment and entice other development to come in."
Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony, anxious fans shuffled into the building as they high-fived smiling workers and representatives who helped the enterprise come to fruition. The casino's representatives tweeted Sunday evening that turnout to the 24-hour facility's debut was "astonishing."
Some who lined Northern Avenue early Sunday morning compared it to a tailgate party.
"We started the line and were wondering when the cops were going to come to give us a ticket," said Peoria resident Patricia Castleberry, who waited outside with a friend. "It was like a tailgate -- we all started talking to each other."
Nearly 30 minutes after guests entered the neon-lit casino, another early attendee played her go-to game, adorned with bright images of pandas, as her husband watched.
"It's my lucky animal," Glendale resident Flora Louis said, momentarily taking her eyes off the bright screen. "I always play if there's pandas on it."
Louis and her husband, Michael, were the occupants of the second car in line outside the gates at 5 a.m. Sunday. The couple said they were thrilled to have a casino close to their home, located about 20 blocks away. They often travel a few times a month to the East Valley to play games at Wild Horse Pass or Vee Quiva in the southwest Valley.
"I'm definitely happy we don't have to go to Chandler," Michael Louis said. "It's great that we have something close to home."
For him, the new casino offers an opportunity to play his favorite game -- Wheel of Fortune, which he said is the only game he frequents, sometimes winning hundreds of dollars from a single round.
"I don't do card games, but I'll play that," he said.
Mere minutes later, a buzzer alarmed, bathing neighboring players in bright, colorful light.
It was at Wheel of Fortune; a man scored the first jackpot at the casino, valued at more than $1,900 on a $5 round of Michael Louis' favorite game. Booming cheers from curious spectators and enthusiastic staff echoed in the room as officials came by to shake hands with the winner, motivating others to take their spins at fortune.