Flagstaff, AZ – The down economy has resulted in fewer tourists visiting northern Arizona this spring. Grand Canyon National Park is no exception. Visitation there is down more than ten percent. Now park officials are moving forward with a controversial new plan they say is necessary to keep the park financially solvent.
Hikers and rafters who travel through the Grand Canyon usually only hear the roar of whitewater. But soon, they may also hear the sound of slot machines.
Grand Canyon National Park is planning to build a small casino next to Phantom Ranch. Park superintendent Martin Steves says he didn't want to take this step. But he felt he had no choice after a plan fell through to sell naming rights to the Bright Angel Trail to AIG.
"We're losing millions of dollars in admission revenues because of the decline in tourists. And we have a huge backlog of maintenance projects, buildings and trails that need to be rehabbed. I'm sorry we have to take this step, but frankly, we need the money."
Steves says the park is expected to receive some federal stimulus money, but it won't be enough to cover their revenue shortfall. The casino is a joint project with the Havasupai tribe, which is dealing with its own revenue shortage since flash floods closed the reservation to tourists last summer. The federal government has engineered a complicated land swap, where the Havasupai will get a chunk of land next to Phantom Ranch in exchange for land in Havasu Canyon. Elta Trump is a spokeswoman for the tribe.
"We're excited for this partnership with the Park Service. We're planning to build some man made replicas of our famous waterfalls inside the casino that way they'll be safe from any flash floods we have in the future."
The casino itself will be a replica of the Las Vegas skyline Just like there's a Grand Canyon replica in Las Vegas. There will also be a helipad on the casino's roof reserved specifically for high rollers. But the park service is also taking a page from casino operators in the Midwest. The Mississippi River has riverboat casinos, now the Colorado River will have blackjack rafts. The park service has hired longtime guide Dirk Bryan to design the special boats.
Bryan says he's already been contacted by ESPN about holding next year's World Series of Poker on the river. Surprisingly the plan has received little resistance from environmental groups around the southwest. Clark Rogers is with the new conservation group Grand Canyon Trust Fund Babies, which is hoping to leverage profits from the new casino to help protect the rest of the environment around the Canyon.
"We initially opposed the plan, but we agreed to drop our opposition when the Park Service told us that if we did, THEY would drop their plans for a new casino on top of Half Dome in Yosemite, and another casino literally on top of Old Faithful in Yellowstone the geyser would have erupted straight through a hole in the center of the casino."
Not everyone, though, is happy with the plan. The Hualapai Tribe is worried the new casino may lure visitors away from its glass bottomed Canyon skywalk. So in response the Hualapai have just announced a new gaming venture of their own a casino inside a submarine, that would allow tourists to gamble away their life savings while cruising the depths of Lake Mead.
For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker.