Amid months-long construction supply chain delays, Osages and other community members celebrated the new Pawhuska Osage Casino & Hotel grand opening festivities that featured an Oct. 5 ribbon cutting ceremony.
Located in the Osage Nation’s capital city, the larger Pawhuska casino features 259 electronic machines, meeting and special event space, a 47-room hotel tower and full-service restaurant named “The Big Spoon.”
Construction started in summer 2021, but supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the arrival of imported electrical switchgear equipment and building efforts continued until the materials arrived.
At last, Osage Casinos hosted back-to-back celebrations of the Pawhuska casino opening with a three-hour Oct. 4 preview event for Osage tribal members held indoors near the hotel registration desk and the opening commemoration held the morning of Oct. 5 outdoors in front of the casino under the porte-cochère.
“This project has required determination and tenacity and we are thankful for the dedication of our tribal members, our staff and the partners who have stood by us on this journey,” Osage Casinos CEO Kimberly Pearson said at the preview event. She then thanked government officials, including the ON Congress and Executive Branch for help in working together to complete the casino project. “We’re incredibly proud of what we have built and what it will give back to (the Nation).”
Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear announced to the preview crowd: “The hotel rooms for this weekend are sold out! And I’m told that – the June (Inlonshka) dances in Pawhuska – that week is just about sold out! So this proves what everybody working together figuring out what’s the right size, what to do … and there is a plan to all work together to create a good gaming experience for everyone and generate revenue for us.”
Revenue from the seven-Osage Casino Gaming Enterprise largely funds the Nation’s government operations aside from other sources including the Tax Commission. “This is a revenue generating business … is returned to be invested and used to maintain (casino) facilities, run operations, employ people, right now I believe we have over 1,300 employees in Osage County area and 11% are Osage … And of course, that kind of activity, wages, benefits and the use of gasoline generates money for the communities,” he said.
Standing Bear continued by listing other uses of gaming revenue including Osage government operations and services such as the health benefit program, higher education scholarships, burial assistance and education opportunities including Daposka Ahnkodapi, as well as cultural projects including new dance arbors for the three villages and the recently built larger Wakon Iron Hall in the Pawhuska Village.
The village jurisdiction is also where the earlier casino – housed in double-wide mobile home units – was located at the corner of 15th Street and U.S. 60, dating back to Spring 2003, which included bingo games in the former Wakon Iron Hall demolished for the larger new building. Those casino employees, along with newer hired ones bring staffing to 119 employees at the new casino/ hotel as of opening day.
The new property amenities also include: hotel fitness center; an outdoor area with a pool, hot tub and refreshment bar; and 3,240 square-feet of banquet space with food/ beverage service that can be reserved for special events including receptions, dinners, weddings, conferences and other gatherings. “We hope that you will enjoy this facility and your friends, it’s a great entertainment experience,” Standing Bear said.
The Pawhuska casino opening is the first of two new properties opening this year with the larger Bartlesville Osage Casino & Hotel project still nearing completion and no opening date announcement yet. Osage Casinos broke ground on both Pawhuska and Bartlesville projects in June 2021.
Assistant Principal Chief RJ Walker recalled attending the ribbon-cutting for the Pawhuska McDonalds on nearby Main Street 10 years earlier and noted other businesses have since moved to town as well. “It’s just a positive thing, it’s a big deal for our community,” Walker said. “I was blessed to be hired in 2002 by the Osage Nation and I remember in 2003 we had about $250,000 of bingo revenue and we thought that was a big deal and here we are now … Enjoy yourselves and I hope you come out and game a little bit.”
Congressional Speaker Alice Goodfox said “congratulations to the Osage Nation Gaming Commission, a lot of work goes into building a property and opening and they are a key part of that. Congratulations to our long-time loyal employees, our recently hired employees, thank you for joining our gaming team, thank you to the Congress members and the government that’s been a part of this process from Day 1. We have been approving annual plans that have included this for over a decade, we have been talking about this, so it’s great to finally be here.”
Goodfox also applauded Pearson, who previously served as Chief Operations Officer and Executive Director for casino management and was active in the years-long land-into-trust application process for the recent casino projects. “Putting land into (federal) trust is no easy task and she has been there every step of the way and here we are, so congratulations and lastly, to our gamers: Good luck!”
Pawhuska Mayor Roger Taylor joined ON officials and other community members for the opening day commemoration. “I look around today and I see a beautiful facility – I’m assuming these are Huskie colors? – I want to say it’s an honor to stand before you all, I want to thank Chief Standing Bear, Assistant Chief Walker for having me come. As a representative of the city, I’m thrilled that you all are here. My wife and I moved here with our daughter in 1995, we had a lot to learn about the Osage Nation and the more I’ve looked and studied and looked at the history, I know that you all are a very resilient people, it’s kind of like the (Energizer bunny TV commercials), y’all just keep going and going and going … I don’t believe the Osage Nation will ever, ever, ever give up,” Taylor said with a quip.
Gaming Enterprise Board Chair Geoff Hager acknowledged fellow board members Claudette Carnett and Bruce Pollock who all attended the opening festivities and addressed the opening day crowd. “We understand our role on this Gaming Enterprise Board, this is the primary funding mechanism for the Osage Nation and it’s not a role we take lightly … I want to extend a thank you to all our members of Congress that are here, it’s a pleasure to work with you on this. Everything about our annual plan is confidential except for one thing that is public and it’s the number of the distribution that comes back to the Osage Nation and this year, we’re proud to say it’s a historic number once again: $71 million will come from this Gaming Enterprise to the Osage Nation (for the current 2024 fiscal year),” Hager said.
Hager then recognized the Pawhuska casino employees who will work at the property under General Manager Mason Shackelford. Osage Casinos Director of Facilities Bruce Cass, applauded the project’s completion amid the delays and challenges encountered. “This project, and the Bartlesville project, they are both – in my opinion – success stories. Other projects tapered off and stopped, other projects across the state and across the country, they didn’t finish the projects. They shelled out space and they’re waiting for the right time or maybe they’ve begun. But our perseverance and commitment to getting this project completed, we persevered through that process and this property right here is a direct result of that effort and a success story for the Osage Casinos and ultimately the Osage people.”