For many of those in line, Chukchansi Gold casino’s reopening Thursday morning represented a mini-vacation, a stop for a meal and the lure of a few slots or a gathering place to meet friends.
The resort was closed by the state and federal governments in October 2014 after a casino raid and a dispute over audits that weren’t completed as required. About 500 patrons and employees were forced to leave that Thursday night. No one was seriously hurt in the raid, though some physical assaults were reported.
But on New Year’s Eve, all that controversy was forgotten.
In the morning cold, the patrons were cheered by talk of slot machines with names like Panda, Wheel of Fortune, Wizard of Oz and Cleopatra. There was the always-popular Keno, the buffet and restaurants, as well as the friendliness and hospitality of Chukchansi employees.
By noon, the long-silent, 56,000-square-foot gaming area was buzzing, ringing and dinging with activity. Table game seats were filled, as were the bulk of the 1,700 slot chairs. Tribal officials were estimating the casino was 85 percent full and a line of vehicles was queuing up in the early afternoon at the driveway for the hotel, where all the rooms – about half of the 400 rooms were available – were filled Thursday night.
“It’s a place for entertainment, a distraction that helps you forget all your troubles when you walk in,” said Martha Acuna of Fresno.
Customers lined up early
At 9 a.m., a line of about 200 had formed outside the casino doors. Anxious patrons could be overheard asking the time and then saying, “Is that all it is?” as they awaited the 10 a.m. opening.
Among those trying to stay warm was Fresno resident Yvette Freitas. She was at Chukchansi with her husband when the resort was closed in October 2014.
“We were nicely escorted out,” she said.
Fast forward to Thursday: Frieitas was ready to play again and see friends.
“It’s like old-home week ... this was our country club to meet our friends,” she said. “It was the experience, the entertainment, the dining, and you got to know the employees.”
Said her husband, Monty Roushall, who was celebrating his birthday the night Chukchansi closed: “We were just angry it closed; we were disgruntled, it messed up everything because this is our social area.”
Over the years, they have made going to the casino a family affair. Freitas brought her daughters for their 21st birthdays, and they meet their parents at the resort.
The couple’s anniversary is Friday, giving them another occasion to stay at the Coarsegold casino.
Some friends of Freitas and Roushall, Dwayne and Sonja Martin, live within sight of the casino and were frequent visitors to Chukchansi. They visit to take a break from their work and family grind. He was celebrating his birthday Thursday.
“It’s a nice place to escape, to be able to get out of the house and have a place close by,” he said. “We’ve been to most of the casinos and this is one of the nicest ones.”
Near the front of the line, Michelle Fohn of Fresno said she was eager to get back on the machines, but the resort represents more than just playing the games.
“It’s like a mini-vacation,” she said. “Even if you spend only $20, you had a good time. There’s plenty to see, the people are friendly and it’s beautiful. It lets you dream big on a small budget.”
Adrian Moreno of Tulare arrived on the day after the raid and found the resort closed. The only reason he and his wife got inside that day was because she had to use the restroom.
They turned around and went to Table Mountain near Friant.
But he was ready to play at Chukchansi on Thursday, arriving at 8 a.m. His wife was going to drive up after finishing work, bring their children and call Moreno’s mother to join them.
He said they will probably head to Chukchansi twice a month, as they did before it closed.
Safety, Moreno hopes, will not be an issue again.
“You want to feel safe, especially when your family is going to be here,” he said. “That should be the priority.”
James Munoz and Amanda Pombo of Bakersfield stayed with friends in Fresno on Wednesday night and drove up early Thursday.
Munoz said he doesn’t worry about losing money because “we always make it back at the buffet.”
A call for peace
In a brief ceremony minutes before the opening, tribal officials called for peace among all of Chukchansi’s factions and prayed for better times.
“I’m just really excited; I can’t stop smiling,” said Claudia Gonzales, tribal council chairwoman. “I’m thrilled to open Chukchansi Gold.”
As meaningful as Thursday’s event was for patrons and the tribe, the official grand opening will occur Jan. 15.
Tribal council member Morris Reid said it’s time to start fresh.
“We need to put aside our differences and come together, band together to make this work, learn from our mistakes and never let this happen again,” he said.
Not all were heeding that call.
At the entrance to the casino on Highway 41 and Lucky Lane, 15 to 20 demonstrators from the tribe held signs referring to government approval of what they view as an illegally elected tribal government. The state and federal governments approved the recently held election and Madera County officials negotiated with the new council. The demonstrators represent two factions that intend to press their claims in federal court.
But county Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who represents the Coarsegold area, said Thursday that he was experiencing “probably the best New Year’s of my life” because of what the resort means to the community. Before it closed, the resort had an annual payroll of $32 million and generated about $100 million in revenue. In addition, the tribe spent millions of dollars locally on supplies.
“We’re going to open this up and we’ll have 1,000 more jobs and the trickle-down from that,” he said.