Tohono O’Odham Party Time: Celebrating Three Decades of Gaming and Progress

Courtesy Desert Diamond Casino / Desert Diamond Casino in Tuscon, Arizona

Tohono O’Odham Party Time: Celebrating Three Decades of Gaming and Progress

The month of April is officially party time among the 28,000 members of the Tohono O’odham Nation scattered across some 4,500 square miles of reservation land in Southern Arizona.

While planning is underway to celebrate the centennial establishment of the reservation, there’s another milestone to be feted first. Party hats have been ordered in celebration of the tribe’s 30th anniversary of Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment. Festivities kick off on April 4 with a performance by the Doobie Brothers at the Sahuarita location.

Courtesy Desert Daimond Casinos / The original bingo tent

The economic climate significantly changed for these dwellers of the Sonoran Desert in 1984 when the tribe opened Papago Bingo Hall in Tuscon. The Nation quickly recognized the prospect of greater revenue generation and signed its first Indian gaming compact, turning its small bingo operation into the Desert Diamond Casino. Six years later, the tribe opened a satellite casino Why, Arizona, followed by the Sahuarita gaming house in 2001. In 2007, the tribe's original Tuscon-based casino was replaced with a new gaming facility, as well as a hotel, convention center and entertainment arena. The tribe has a fourth venture on the drawing table, the multi-million dollar West Valley Resort slated for Tohono-owned acreage in the Phoenix Valley, predicated on federal and state law.

Desert Diamond’s three existing facilities currently employ more than 1,300 workers, making the casino operation one of the region’s largest employers, ranking alongside military, governmental, manufacturing and tourist industry efforts. When salaries, subcontractors and services are combined, it’s estimated the tribe’s gaming operations inject over $25 million into Southern Arizona’s economy annually, a respectable percentage of the $1.8 billion generated in 2012 by Arizona Indian-owned casinos, according to the just-released Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report.

When the Tucson hotel venue opened in 2007, then General Manager Henry Childs told Indian Country Today Media Network: “You need to think strategically, proceed with your business plan, and market aggressively.” They have done all that, particularly on the gaming and entertainment fronts, and now everyone gets to celebrate the benefits in the form of month-long festivities that include more than a million dollars worth of giveaways.

Courtesy Desert Diamond Casinos / Interior of the original bingo hall

Current and long-time Tribal Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., functioned as director of community relations at Desert Diamond during the time of the big change and was one of the principals involved in the creation and perpetuation of this success story.

In his casino days, Dr. Norris was responsible for discovering staff talent to move the mission forward. Apparently he had a knack for finding the right folks, because a number of employees who started in the bingo tent have been with the Tohono gaming industry operation since its inception.

Chief Operating Officer Libby Francisco just celebrated her 19th anniversary and says the job still provides it’s fair share of challenges as well as rewards, giving her the true sense of accomplishment. “I love my job and being part of the many transitions, growth and success,” she told ICTMN.

Reflecting on the tribe’s economic evolution over three decades, Francisco said, “The difference is like night and day, and we continue to grow and take new steps.”

Courtesy Desert Diamond Casinos / Desert Diamond Casino in Sahuarita

Another Ned Norris hire was Treena Parvello, who now counts 15 years on the job. “I’ve been able to see the evolution of positive change, the growth, maturity and sophistication as we’ve overcome obstacles. Not only have we provided the tribe and the Southern Arizona community with jobs and economic development, we’ve re-invested in all our employees.” In her case, the Tribe paid for Parvello to earn her MBA and now she says she’s “happily paying back my dues” in a job which gives her that opportunity.

When it comes to longevity, keno and bingo manager Jesus Contreras takes top honors. “I started when it was high-stakes bingo with over 1,400 people in the hall. It was crazy,” he says. “Now it’s a different kind of crazy with bingo, Keno, slots, poker and blackjack. I went there thinking it was going to be a part-time job, but it turned out to be my lifelong career. I’ve been blessed, because it was the right choice.”

Recognizing that a 30th anniversary comes only once, the Nation has pulled out all stops throughout the month with April 17 being the key date as it coincides with the official start of modern gaming for the tribe. A Million Dollar Diamond Spiniversary will conclude with end-of-the-month drawings for lucky winners at each of the three casino properties.

Courtesy Desert Diamond Casino/ Interior of Desert Diamond Casino in Tuscon