BONNERS FERRY — The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is gambling on a way to re-energize its love affair with Canadian visitors.
Last week, the tribe-owned Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa unveiled the only gaming rooms in the U.S. with machines that will accept either Canadian or U.S. currency.
“These machines totally eliminate the issue of Canadian discounts,” said Jerry Jaeger, president of Coeur d’Alene-based Hagadone Hospitality, which manages the hotel and casino for the Kootenai Tribe. “Now there’s no converting to U.S. dollars and discounting of any kind.”
Jaeger’s remarks underscore the disparity between strengths of the U.S. and Canadian dollars the past couple of years. Because the Canadian dollar is worth roughly three-quarters of its American counterpart, the percentage of Canadian visitors to the inn and casino just 27 miles south of the border has declined sharply. Tom Turpin, Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa general manager, said when the Canadian dollar was equal to or slightly greater than the U.S. dollar just a few years ago, about 55 percent of the casino’s business was Canadian. Now it dips as low as 40 percent, he said.
While Jaeger declined to disclose how much the Kootenai Tribe spent on the machines’ makeover, he said it was “a substantial investment,” but not one motivated entirely by the desire to make up for lost revenue.
“When the Kootenai Tribal Council first put in machines many years ago, it was the Canadian visitors who really fell in love with the casino, small as it was,” he said. He added the love affair worked both ways.
The hotel on the banks of the Kootenai River opened in December 1986 — seven months after the opening of the Coeur d’Alene Resort — with 47 rooms, an indoor pool and a nice restaurant, Turpin said.
“I was one of the team members who helped open it, and it was an economic stimulus for the tribe which had only 60 or 70 members,” Turpin said. But it was a stimulus without lucrative gaming revenue.
That changed in 1993, Turpin said, when creation of the state lottery “opened the opportunity for the tribe to get into gaming.”
As gaming grew at the Kootenai River Inn, so did the number of rooms to provide lodging for the gamers. The Tribe’s proximity to and affinity with Canadians helped that growth eventually reach 101 rooms to accommodate the gamers, Turpin said.
“Our Canadian guests, people from Creston and Cranbrook, could come down and play their machines,” he said. “They loved it because they didn’t have to worry about the exchange rate.”
However, a National Indian Gaming Commission mandate in 2007 intended to tighten accounting controls and bring greater integrity to the industry essentially killed the Canadian gaming machine on U.S. soil, Turpin said. That wasn’t a huge deal as long as the Canadian dollar remained strong, he added; guests from north of the border simply switched to U.S. currency for their gaming.
A weakening Canadian dollar and national economy over the past couple years has hurt business. Turpin said casino management has offered special benefits to its best Canadian customers to make up the exchange rate imbalance, and they’ve advertised the fact visitors can save $25 or so on a gas tank fill-up in Bonners Ferry vs. Cranbrook. But still the volume of Canadian visitors and their spending declined.
The dual currency investment puts to work upgraded software called The Advantage System by IGT in Reno, Nev., Turpin said. Machines with that software are marked with Canadian flags and allow gamers to spend and cash in their winnings with Canadian currency; they also provide all the accounting and player tracking mandated by the 2007 regulations.
Enthusiastic Canadian visitors Saturday suggested the gamble will pay off.
“I haven’t been here for seven years,” said 87-year-old Don Leitch of Castlegar, British Columbia. “We used to come here when the money was equal.”
Leitch said he heard from a Coeur d’Alene drywaller playing golf in Castlegar that the Canadian machines were being installed.
“We’ve got our own casino but this is pretty thrilling,” he said.
Tracy Palmer drove down from Cranbrook with five friends Saturday to play for the day. She had gotten a card from the casino, telling her about the Canadian machines.
“I thought, ‘Perfect! — I don’t have to mess around with the exchange rate,’” she said.
Turpin talked to Canadian guests Saturday, then passed around the praise and looked to the future.
“The people who deserve the credit is the tribe,” he said. “This is one of the smallest tribes in the country, but it’s grown in the past 30 years in large part because of this facility and gaming and the economic advantages they’ve created. There’s going to be a lot of tribes along the border who will take a look at this and see what opportunities they may have, too.”
Many guests at the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa get views like this from their rooms on the Kootenai River.