GRAND RONDE, Ore., July 17 (UPI) -- With 3 million visitors a year, the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state of Oregon is . . . a casino.
"We beat out a waterfall," says Michael Moore, the affable redheaded chief executive officer and president of Spirit Mountain Casino.
It's not that Oregon is short on tourist attractions. It's just that the reservation land owned by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is located at an especially strategic place on State Highway 18 -- halfway between Portland and the beach -- and the meandering two-lane road is just annoying enough for travelers to rejoice when they see the flat sandy building with a columned portico popping suddenly out of the woods.
As Indian casinos go, it's neither the largest nor the smallest -- it could almost be the prototype for Typical American Indian Casino -- but what's a little eerie about it is how CALM it is.
Spirit Mountain is one of the first casinos in the country to go all-coinless, all-the-time, so that its 1,500 slot machines hum and gurgle and buzz, but you never hear that satisfying sound of 1,000 quarters plummeting into the noisy steel tray. (In Las Vegas, by contrast, the trays are designed to be as noisy as possible, on the theory that it stimulates more gambling.)
"When I got here, I was amazed at how efficient this operation is," says Moore, a veteran casino executive who's worked in Reno, Nev.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Vegas. "We have very loyal customers and we spend very little money to get them. We have no cashback. We have no expensive promotions. And people PAY for the bus. (They do get a funbook worth about $20, including a food discount.) We give no credit. We don't cash checks. It's literally a cash business.
"You know what it reminds me of? Harrah's Tahoe in the 1960s. The same kind of casual, informal feel, where everyone is family. If employees get sick here, the customers actually send them cards and flowers."
Offering virtually nothing that a Vegas casino offers -- not even complimentary cocktails due to a tribal rule --Spirit Mountain is still the most profitable casino in a state that has six other Indian gambling joints, including the rival Chinook Winds Casino and Convention Center, which is another hour down the highway on the beach in Lincoln City.
Since most of the business is from Portland, Spirit Mountain has the advantage of being the most convenient place to gamble in the state. A drive from Portland to Chinook Winds would take two to three hours -- too far to bop down there on a weeknight -- and Spirit Mountain no doubt picks off a lot of motorists who get 60 miles down the road and decide, "Why drive any farther?"
"We do share some customers with Chinook," says Moore. "Many Oregonians have summer homes in Lincoln City, so they spend the warm months on the beach. We have a far better product, though. They have a hard time at Chinook in the wintertime. We just look at it as one more reason to come down here."
On a recent day that was gray, misty and damp -- not uncommon for Oregon logging country -- the crowd at Spirit Mountain was reminiscent of Atlantic City. Almost all of them were day-trippers, they stayed about four hours, the only "comp" they cared about was free food, and they tended to be older people, 50 and up.
As you might expect, this is almost entirely a slot-machine business -- 90 percent, according to Moore, with Spirit Mountain's 50 table games standing empty much of the time. Unlike other western states, though, video poker is not such a big deal here.
The reason is that Oregon allows up to five video poker machines in every bar, and the easy availability of it has created a sort of video poker stigma. Oregonians refer to it as "video crack," as though it's a low-class form of gambling, and debates are periodically waged about eliminating so-called "convenience gambling" entirely.
The result is that the day-trippers pour into Spirit Mountain to cadge a free buffet and play the cheapest games of them all -- nickel and penny slots.
"We're the opposite of Nevada," says Moore, referring to the trade's heavy marketing of dollar slots and relegation of the lower denominations to small slot-machine ghettos.
"We're also very heavy on video. We have 1,500 machines, and 80 percent of those are multi-line video machines."
For the most part these aren't the kind of machines to offer big jackpots, but the casino is tied in electronically to a progressive jackpot shared by Indian casinos nationwide. Since opening in 1995, Spirit Mountain has had six "primary hits" on the progressive -- payouts of $100,000 or more -- and all six winners have not only agreed to publicity, but actually WANTED to have their pictures taken. (In Las Vegas, by contrast, big winners often want to remain anonymous.)
The success of Spirit Mountain has been a boon for the Confederated Tribes, which is actually five surviving bands of Pacific Northwest Indians called the Molalla, the Rogue, the Chasta, the Umpqua and the Kalapuya. Altogether it's about 4,000 people who share the profits of the casino every July in a generous distribution of 25 percent. They put 6 percent into a community fund, given to local charities and used for civic improvement projects, and the remaining 69 percent goes to tribal services and their main business, logging.
Oregon, almost alone among casino states, doesn't tax casinos directly, so the effective tax rate is 6 percent -- good news for slots players, who don't have to put up with the extremely tight payout schedules of states like Illinois and Indiana.
The casino itself is just the basics -- a beautiful lobby with a skylight rotunda done in baby blues and light woods, a roomy casino floor with a planetarium ceiling and festive neon columns, a buffet, a small steak and seafood restaurant, a Starbucks (with penny slots on premises) and a deli. Spirit Mountain Lodge is a 100-room hotel reserved mostly for high rollers and done up in rustic hunting-lodge style, complete with headboards engraved with coyotes and a coyote sculpture fountain in the lobby.
Entertainment is minimal. They do have a lounge, and about six times a year they convert the 1,500-seat bingo hall into a showroom for B-level acts like Tony Orlando, B.B. King, Gallagher, Jeff Foxworthy and Colin Ray. All the shows are on Thursday nights to draw midweek business since the weekends are already packed.
With so many people obviously comfortable here, you would think they would be thinking about expansion, but that's not such an easy thing to do in environment-crazy Oregon. "We're thinking about it," says Moore, "but we have problems. We have limited land and water here, and we're dealing with protected plants. The sheer expense of expansion would make it difficult. You have to get tribal approval, EPA approval, federal approval, state approval, county approval. It might happen, but if so, it will happen slowly."
Spirit Mountain also benefits from being right smack dab in the middle of the Oregon wine country, with 100 wineries in the area and lots of bed-and-breakfasts trying to create the kind of yuppie tourism common in the Napa Valley of California. Add to that the recent reconstruction of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, which was disassembled and then put back together in a special hangar in nearby McMinnville, and they have the beginnings of an overnight-tourist business. (Spirit Mountain has already installed a "Spruce Goose Progressive" bank of slot machines.)
For the time being, though, Spirit Mountain has the character of a locals joint, even with all the midweek buses and the drive-ins from Portland and Salem. "I like working here," says Moore. "I certainly don't miss the alcohol that you have in the traditional casino business. No drinking problems. Quiet. Non-rowdy. Family-oriented."
The first thing you see when you enter is a bronze statue of Martha Jane Sands, a 19th century tribal member, weaving a basket with her attentive daughter standing nearby. The Confederated Tribes don't weave baskets anymore, but Martha Jane looks totally at home. It's a safe, cozy, eminently respectable place. If it weren't for the occasional ding of a slots payoff, you could almost hear a gurgling Oregon salmon stream. Is this the neighborhood gambling place of the future? For better or worse, I think it is.
SPIRIT MOUNTAIN CASINO
Highway 18, Grand Ronde, Ore.
Theme: Native American Lite
Total investment: Unknown
Known for: Top-grossing casino in Oregon.
Marketing niche: Drive-in business from Portland, Salem.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Alcohol not allowed on the casino floor, but serve-yourself, drinks are free.
Rare games: None (Three Card Poker recently added)
Surrounding area: Dense forest and the Oregon wine country.
Web site: spiritmountain.com
Overall rating: 60
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $20 after some low-limit craps: total to date: +$155
(Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," can be contacted at JoeBob@upi.com.)