SFR: I keep seeing these T-shirts advertising ‘8/8/08,’ but you open on Aug. 12. What gives?
JT: We open on the 12th to the public. The construction company turns it over to us then, and what we’re gonna do is called shakedown crews. So we’ll have some employees in there doing their final practice sessions in there. Effectively we can’t even get in the building just yet. It’s still a construction zone.
This is a massive, massive project.
It is: $280 million. It’s a big project. Pueblo’s been good to me. I spent $16 million on slot machines. We have 1,200 slots on this floor.
Where did you get the money for this?
The Pueblo of Pojoaque floated a $250 million bond with Merrill Lynch. That was the primary funding borrowing we did. In addition we have a $40 million FFE—furniture, fixture, equipment fund. We bought all the equipment through the bonding arrangement, through Wall Street basically. Of course the ability to do it depends on our success at Cities of Gold, and we’ve been very successful there. You’ll see in the next quarter that we’ve made tremendous moves over there.
What was your first casino job?
I started out as a payroll clerk in the housekeeping department of the MGM Grand with about 500 guest room attendants.
To what extent is the casino business a one-upmanship sort of thing?
A lot. We all take pride in what we do. It’s like this: If you have a spectacular car, like maybe a Dodge Challenger, and then I pull up with my Maserati, it’s like, ‘Look what I got.’ But I don’t want to get carried away with us competing with each other. At the end of the day, I want to put exciting things in there.
How’s your reception been by people on the pueblo?
Fabulous. To a large extent this is their dream come true. The 390 members of the tribe are basically the owners of this operation. Look at this place—have you ever seen a place with so much color and vibrancy? We’ll be very successful. It’s going to be the largest single hotel in the state. It’ll have 395 rooms and suites. We have 82 up at the Homewood. Total we’re pushing, like, 475 rooms throughout the facility.
Is there anything weird about being a white guy and Native-ifying this casino?
Not at all. I’m a little different guy than most. Financially, I don’t ever have to work again. So I take pride in the execution of what we’re doing.
There are already casinos in northern New Mexico. Do we need one more?
Let me tell you these statistics and maybe that’ll help you. Since 2003 to current, the tribal gaming and racetrack market in this state has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 9 percent. So even though right now the whole country’s in kind of an economic…lull period, I’ll call it, the US goes through cycles. I pretty much grew up in Vegas. I’ve been in the industry since ’74. As we built each property, it created demand. It’s the complete package. I don’t need to go to the West Coast or East Coast. Or even Vegas. if I’m within a 300-mile circle I can be here in four hours. I’m telling you, and you may not believe me, there’s not a casino in Las Vegas that’s nicer than this. I’ll go toe-to-toe with Bellagio and those guys.
Do you expect the high gas prices to affect business?
I think there are a couple sides to the equation. Higher gas prices will cause our more proximate customers to say, ‘I’ve got a choice closer to me, let’s go there,’ instead of maybe flying to Vegas or Atlantic City. Also, higher gas prices are eating up disposable income everywhere. So I don’t care if we’re a bakery or what kind of business we’re in, we’re all in this together. But I see the US as being so resilient. The beauty of this resort will long withstand the economic cycles.
Talk about security: What kind of stuff have you seen people try and pull?
Everything from taking other people’s money to trying to cap a bet, trying to force our machines to pay more than they were supposed to pay. The most common one is people leaving their tickets and others trying to go cash them out.
Any specific incidents come to mind?
I played to the MIT team back in 1996 on the Grand Victoria. I was the GM at the property at the time. They came in and in the matter of two hours got me for $30,000 before we stopped them. We all build a sense over time, where we know when something’s not right.
How many cameras do you have on the casino floor?
Are we being filmed right now?