ONAWA, Iowa | The flashing slot machines beeped, chimed and pinged as dozens of betters tried their luck Tuesday in the newly opened Blackbird Bend Casino.
The sounds were sweet music for members of the Omaha Tribe, which operates the casino on reservation land just northwest of Onawa.
"We're glad to have gaming back on the reservation," said Turner, a member of the tribe's gaming commission.
The casino, formerly known as Casino Omaha, had been shut down since the summer-long flooding along the Missouri River in 2011.
Unusually high Rocky Mountain snow pack in late spring, combined with abnormally heavy rainfall in May and June throughout Montana and the Dakotas forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release record amounts of water from upscale dams.
"I had two weeks to get everything out of here," recalled Bill Walsh, CEO of Blackbird Bend Corp., a tribal subsidiary that operates the casino. "That wasn't very much time."
To protect one of the tribe's most significant sources of revenue, tribal members and other volunteers built a 10-foot berm around the property in just four days.
But as much as 1 1/2 feet of floodwater entered portions of the building, including the then-gaming floor.
"The water was way up to here," Walsh said Tuesday, as he placed his hand on a spot on the wall about 18 inches from the floor.
While there was no structural damage, the structure had to be gutted, Walsh said.
More than 1 /2 years after the floodwaters receded, the casino reopened last Monday with a new name, Blackbird Bend, in the former casino restaurant. That 6,800-square-foot space was converted into a gaming floor because it stayed dry during the flood, Walsh said.
Gaming resumed with 128 slots, with more on the way, up to 200 eventually, Walsh said. Most of the machines are brand new, he added.
Tribal members, who spent in excess of $1 million to get the casino back up and running, point out the space is only temporary. Later this spring, the tribe plan to break ground on a $11 million casino.
Tribal funds and disaster awards from the Federal Emergency Management Administration will finance the project, which will be constructed in an adjacent parking lot.
Officials expect the new gaming facility, which will have 430 slots and eight table games, to open in late 2013 or early 2014. The new structure will be built six feet higher than the existing one, providing more than clearance to withstand a repeat of the 2011 flood.
The new casino will employ about 160 workers, an increase from the 138 who lost their jobs when the old casino closed on June 2, 2011. Seventy-three employees were hired to run the casino in the temporary space, Walsh said.
A hiring preference was given to Native Americans, who make up about 75 percent of the current workforce.
"Our employment rate is really high on the reservation," Turner said. "It's good to get some of our tribal members back working again."
In addition to building a new casino, Turner said the tribe is looking to open an events center in the existing structure.
The tribe, headquartered in Macy, Neb., began Las Vegas-style casino in 1992 on its reservation land on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, about five miles northwest of Onawa.
In the early years, Casino Omaha drew heavily from the Sioux City and Omaha-Council Bluffs metro areas, one-way drives of about 40 miles and 60 miles, respectively. Today, Blackbird Bend Casino competes with three large casinos in Council Bluffs, the Argosy Sioux City floating casino, and a nearby tribal casino, WinnaVegas, operated by the Winnebago Tribe near Sloan, Iowa.
Blackbird Bend is the name of the land near the where the casino operates. Walsh said the name change also represents a new beginning, or "rebirth" for the casino, the victim of two closings in the last three years.
The first shut down, which came on June 30, 2009, was blamed on poor economic conditions and management problems. Two weeks before the tribe suspended operations, the National Indian Gaming Commission, which oversees tribal casinos, had recommended the temporary closure. The commission notified the casino it had neglected to submit required quarterly statements and fees for the first three quarters of 2008.
The tribal council put new internal controls in place, forming a three-member board to oversee the operations.
Walsh, a 46-year casino industry veteran with experience around the globe and a reputation for turning around troubled gaming facilities, was brought in to get the casino back up and running.
The facility reopened in December 2010, only to have to close six months later ahead of the floodwaters.
After evacuating the building, Walsh returned to his home in Las Vegas. The tribe later asked him to return. The latest reopening did not go off without a hitch. Plans to open on Saturday, Jan. 12 had to be scratched due to a problem with the computer system. As a consolation, the casino provided free food to the guests who showed up.
Jerri Morgan, one of the customers who turned out to play the slots Tuesday, said she is pulling for the tribe.
"They had put a lot of work in before the flood to get it reopened," the Sioux City woman said. "They seemed to get the bad end of the stick. I hope they're able to make it."