AKWESASNE — The first guests were directed by a pair of unimpressive flashing signs on Route 37, alerting drivers that the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino was straight ahead.
“We had 100 table games and cardboard cutouts of slot machines,” laughed Darlene Dilcox, who is director of casino services.
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“And they had signs on them that said ‘Coming soon,’” added Terrilee Ransom-Hill, the director of building operations and security.
That was April 11, 1999, the grand opening of the gaming operation owned by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and about 250 people were there.
“Our first year, the goal was to have 2,000 people a day, but we were not getting that a week,” Ransom-Hill laughed.
Today, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort has an average of 1.6 million guests visit each year, “so we’re definitely a success story,” Dilcox said.
The operation now boasts 1,525 slot machines, 38 gaming tables and a 540-seat bingo parlor with another 250 gaming machines inside. There’s also a 150-room hotel with a swimming pool and full-service Sweetgrass Spa.
“Sweetgrass plays a very important part in our culture, especially our basketmaking,” Ransom-Hill said when asked about the name. “It is a fragrant grass that’s very soothing.”
The top floor of the hotel features the presidential suites for high rollers who also use the Maple Room at the casino for dinner.
The merger of the Mohawk Bingo Palace operation with the casino has made the resort a one-stop destination for gamblers and bingo players alike.
“We are starting our bus trips on April 13, and now people can come and stay instead of driving four, six, eight hours back,” Ransom-Hill said.
“The hotel opens up our whole marketing,” Dilcox said.
The casino employs 980 people, and 39 percent are Native Americans.
The hotel has 68 employees, “and 67 of them are Native,” Dilcox said.
“It’s very gratifying that our own people are working at our own casino instead of having to go somewhere else to find work,” she said.
The Bingo Palace was established in 1985, and it took 14 years of steady progress and building a loyal following of guests that led to establishment of the casino in 1999.
The Poker Room opened in 2001 and quickly became a favorite, along with the gaming tables for roulette, blackjack and craps.
The merger of the casino and bingo sites was first discussed in 2004, shortly after the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council signed a compact that allowed slot machines to be added at the casino.
In exchange, the state would receive an increasing-size share of slot-machine profits and include a percentage for St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Fort Covington and Bombay.
The casino’s first 1,000 slot machines arrived in April 2005, which meant renovation of the gaming floor, which was raised to accept the added weight. Construction continued with no interruption to gaming activities.
The bingo-casino merger was again raised in October 2006, but it remained a plan while the casino expanded in February 2008 to add nearly 1,000 more slots and created Sticks Sports Bar.
A parking area for recreational vehicles was added, including hookups for sewer and water so travelers could comfortably come and play for a day or two.
Again, the games did not stop during construction.
Fewer than two years later, in January 2010, the first phase of a massive $75 million overhaul began that added a new cashier’s cage, Player’s Club area, Rapids Food Court, Reflections Gift Shop and the Cascades, offering guest more services, dining options and shopping choices.
The casino/Bingo Palace merger finally became official in October 2011 with construction of the hotel beginning at the same time, and the casino continued operating with no gaming interrupted by the work.
A soft opening of the new facility under its new resort name was held on March 13, and a grand-opening gala and ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for Thursday, May 9, in the Winter Ballroom.
“We’ve waited until we can get all the kinks out,” Dilcox laughed, adding that it’s nice to have the latest construction project ending.
“We have been working on this for three years, so we welcome a little rest.”
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