A 20-Year Journey: How Chumash Casino Became Santa Barbara’s Premier Resort Casino
Like many other tribes in California 20 years ago, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians stepped into the gaming industry with a bingo hall and the promise of a brighter future. It was particularly exciting for the new workers, many with diverse backgrounds and entering the gaming industry for the first time. Like the new casino itself, the original employees were finding their way in a whole new world. A core group of employees, 22 in total, are still working at the casino two decades later.
“From the very start working at the casino has been exciting,” says Norm Hays, director of purchasing and one of the first employees. “When we first started, the rules and procedures were made up as we went along, and we were always playing catch-up with the number of guests. We opened the first day with about 300 percent more guests than we’d expected.
Indian gaming was a very different industry when the Chumash Casino opened its doors in 1994. It has a full share of the excitement it’s always had, but it lacked some of the glitz – and state recognition – that many California tribes fought so hard for.
In the early days, visitors to the Chumash Casino arrived at a cinderblock building, which housed bingo, slots and table games – a far cry from today’s luxurious facility. Still, the tribe had a vision for the future. That future, however, was still nearly a decade away.
Hard work and high hopes butted up against bureaucracy in those early years.
The gaming industry itself was shaky in the half decade after the Chumash Casino opened. A California voter initiative and state compacts that would cement the legality of Indian gaming in the state were a few years away, and so despite its instant popularity the industry’s future remained uncertain.
“We never knew for sure if we were going to be open the next day,” recalls Hays. “Many of us drove by the front door each morning to see if the doors had been padlocked. But the best thing was the camaraderie
between all the tribal members, tribal descendants and employees all working together with the idea that we will make the casino happen.”
“There were always these dreams that we were going to grow to what we are today,” adds Jimmy Titsworth, a maintenance fleet specialist who started out in security 20 years ago. “And then there were times that we thought we would have to close our doors, but then things would change overnight.”
“There were many 14-hour days,” remembers Eunice James, director of cage and vault and one of the casino’s first employees. “Everyone worked really close together and became fast friends.”
Many tribal members and descendants were some of the first to work there, too. Like Veronica Sandoval, a Chumash descendant and administrator for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Foundation.
The casino was and remains a tight-knit, almost family business, she says, especially when the chips are down. Like in 1998, when during an extremely heavy El Ni.o rain the reservation flooded.
“We were all filling sandbags and placing them along the buildings,” recalls Sandoval. “The flooding was so bad I remember seeing one of our giveaway cars float away.”
But even when adrenaline isn’t required, everybody pitches in, says General Manager Bill Peters. He began his career at the casino in 1994 working in table games, and repeatedly witnessed the camaraderie and casino employees’ willingness to do whatever was needed to keep guests happy and the business running smoothly.
“Like most of us who’ve been here 20 years, everybody did multiple jobs,” recounts Peters. “We dealt tables, we supervised games, we did everything.
If you could work 60 hours a week, you were hired. We had more work than we had people.”
That dedication could also be seen in the patrons. The casino’s popularity never waned and closing time would sometimes require some extra effort to get people to leave, Peters says. “We’d have to drag people off machines at 2 a.m. Then we’d come back and open the doors at 10 a.m. sharp. It was always a mad rush to get back in. It was an absolute zoo, the lines would be out to the parking lot.”
In 1996, the casino added a metal structure and with that came more table games and slot machines. The expansion meant more guests, and more staff.
“Finding the right people, that’s what the tribes did during that period of growth,” says Wayne Hurte, executive director of marketing who started as a table games supervisor. “They reached out to people in California who had gaming experience. But a lot of these people weren’t very good. So what we did was hire good people from inside the casino and taught them the trade. We had the benefit of having really good people already working here.”
Fast forward to 2000: After many years of negotiations between the state of California and gaming tribes, compacts – the legal agreements between the state and the gaming tribes – were finalized in the fall of 1999. And in March 2000, California voters passed Proposition 1A, which formally allowed Indian gaming on reservation lands. With the compact in place, the tribe knew it was time to move forward with its biggest expansion to date.
Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta, like his fellow tribal members, was confident that building a first-class resort was the right choice. “I was never concerned that it wouldn’t be successful,” he says. “I was concerned about how we would continue to grow after the initial six, eight and twelve months. ‘Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right management to operate it?”
In 2001, Chairman Armenta set out on a road show to raise funds for the tribe’s casino consolidation project. The vision was to push forward on that original vision – to build a premier gaming resort and hotel. Bank of America Securities committed $150 million to the tribe; it was the first high-yield bond financing deal ever for a California tribe.
Today, the Chumash Casino Resort employs more than 1,600 people, hosts 3 million visits annually and is indeed one of the premier gaming destinations on the West Coast.
Did the original employees ever imagine it would grow to this size?
“No, not exactly,” says James. “However, when the planning and development stages started I jumped on the bandwagon. It’s always been exciting to see new growth and I’m glad to be a part of the progression.”
– Written by Hildy Medina