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Snoqualmie Tribe considering $260 million Fiji casino partnership

For $1 million and some sharing of its expertise, the Snoqualmie Tribe could take part-ownership of a $290 million luxury resort and casino operation in Fiji.

The offer, from developer Larry Claunch's One Hundred Sands corporation, proposes a partnership with the tribe in developing a resort and casino on Denarau Island, on the west coast of Fiji, in early 2012, and possibly a second casino at Suva, on the southeast coast, to be built later.

It's an intriguing proposal, said Tribal Administrator Matt Mattson, for three reasons. One is that Claunch was recently awarded the country's first and only gambling license, giving him exclusive ownership of all gambling activities at the tourist destination.

"That steady stream of tourists presents a healthy market," Mattson said.

Also, "The tribe thinks it would be an excellent opportunity to assist and mentor another indigenous culture… as they get into operating a gaming facility in their country."

Finally, the timing was opportune. In July, Mattson said the tribal council had just finalized eight priorities for the coming year, and economic development through diversification was high on the list. Within a few months, Donald Sampson, the former executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, met with the Snoqualmie council to suggest the partnership with One Hundred Sands as an investment opportunity.

Having nurtured the Snoqualmie Casino through three years of economic recession since its opening in November, 2008, the tribe has valuable experience and expertise to share. The casino was not only the cheapest and biggest startup venture in tribal casinos in Washington, he said, but it also has never lost money.

"The tribe has never not paid its bills," Mattson said. Revenue from the casino has still not met the initial projections from the 2006 plans, and the tribe, banking on higher returns, was forced to eliminate its police force, and cut staff salaries by 20 percent, among other budget cuts in 2008 and 2009. However, by 2010, the casino had experienced 40 percent growth, and was taking market share from its competitors while overall gaming activity in the Puget Sound area has decreased. Further, it plans to start making per capita distributions of tribal profits to its membership in the coming year.

That experience alone could be extremely valuable to the Fiji casino, Mattson  said. The tribe has also been asked for a $1 million investment, which he says "is very real money, but the risk-reward ratio seems reasonable."

Mattson visited the future casino site earlier this year, and three tribal council members, chairwoman Shelley Burch, Pat Barker, and Jake Repin, were there this week, to assess the possibilities. Mattson's own impressions of the opportunity were positive, although he was concerned about the stability of the government, headed by a president and parliament.

He believed the council delegation members were interested in the opportunity, but added, "I think this really has to be a decision the tribe makes."

Ousted tribe member Kanium Ventura has spoken against the investment which he claims Mattson initiated, and called for his dismissal over the issue.

"This is such a sad thing to invest overseas on something like this and we can not even pay our own debt to the bond holders," Ventura wrote in an e-mail message to the council and many others. "This is a Native American Tribe not a corporation even though on some paperwork that is what our tribe is."

In response, Mattson said that Sampson gave his presentation to the full tribal council, not just himself, and said "I believe that economic diversification is in the long term best interests of the tribe."

Claunch, an American resident of Fiji, has been praised as a "savior" in local press, for his efforts in bringing jobs, education, and modern amenities to the area since 2004, when he built Nukudrau Island Resort, on the island he purchased in 2001.

Learn about the Snoqualmie Tribe at http://www.snoqualmienation.com/.

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