Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa
A Dream Realized
by Therese Everett-Kerley
Driven by unshakeable determination and perseverance, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians will reached a major milestone with the opening of the first ultra-luxury hotel built by the Tribe.
The $300 million Agua Caliente Casino • Resort • Spa is located in the upscale desert enclave of Rancho Mirage, just a short distance from the canyons in Palm Springs where this Tribe’s colorful history is firmly rooted.
The resort hotel offer 340 finely-appointed guest rooms, an invigorating spa, hi-tech conference space, and fine dining just steps away from the Tribe’s wildly popular casino.
Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich said the hotel is not simply a luxury resort, but a symbol of hope and hard work. “This is a triumph for us—our people, as well as the community—to see this beautiful hotel opening. It is a dream realized. And when we say we’re Redefining Spectacular, we mean it.”
A LOOK BACK—The Beginning
The recent successes and future plans of the Agua Caliente rely on the Tribe’s steadfast belief in something bigger.
For over 2,000 years, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have viewed the natural hot springs located below the present day hotel at Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs to be a place of power and healing.
It wasn’t until a United States government survey in 1853 that the spring took on new meaning -- as a place for tourism and profit, based on the healing properties of the waters and the area’s dry desert air. What they the Tribe didn’t know then was that the healing waters would also prove to be the key to their economic success.
In the late 1880s, the first
of three bathhouses was built, drawing visitors from far and wide to soothe their
ailments in the natural mineral waters. Over the next 100 years, the Tribe would
lease and sometimes manage the property, as it grew from a dusty spring-fed stream
into a gleaming Hollywood hangout with the construction of the original “Spa” and
subsequent “Spa Hotel” in 1957 and 1960.
The late 1950s also marked the start of the Agua Caliente Tribe’s push for more control and flexibility in the use of their lands for profit. In 1959, a tenacious, all-woman Tribal Council successfully lobbied Congress to allow the Tribe and its members to grant long-term leases, up to 99 years.
In 1977, the Tribe gained more momentum in the struggle to obtain fiscal stability with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which gave the Tribe complete jurisdiction over their lands. This effectively brought the Agua Caliente Tribe to the table with the City of Palm Springs when it came to development. Under a special land-use contract, the City and Tribe would be permanently bound, shaping the future of this desert oasis.
Despite the monumental accomplishments of the Agua Caliente Tribe over those years, in the early 1990s, many of its members still struggled. A survey conducted in 1993 showed more than half of the Tribe’s 423 members lived at or below the poverty line.
That same year, the purchase of the Spa Hotel, a location with deep roots in Agua Caliente tribal history, set the stage for unprecedented business success.
After creating an 11-member development authority and obtaining a loan from the Bureau of Indian affairs, the Tribe purchased the hotel for $9 million. Two years later, they opened a modest “casino” which was little more than a tent with 200 slot machines and 12 gaming tables. It was the start of Agua Caliente’s booming casino business.
Today, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns and operates two casino-resort properties: Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Casino • Resort • Spa in Rancho Mirage.
Together, the casinos cover 75,000 square feet, offer 2,000 Class III slot machines, 67 table games and 19 poker tables. Both casinos offer headline entertainment and fine dining, and have won numerous awards ranging from Best Casino, Best Poker Room, and many“ Wine Spectator” awards for their popular restaurants.
“What we have accomplished in the past ten years is remarkable,” Chairman Milanovich said.
“When we started, our people were struggling; we, as a Tribe, couldn’t even get a credit card at Kmart.” Now, in addition to their casino holdings, the Tribe is also a partner in Canyon National Bank, an entity they formed in partnership with 350 community shareholders in 1998.
“Today, Tribal members are prospering,” Milanovich said. “They have a stable income and a multitude of Tribal-sponsored services available including health, education and housing programs.”
LOOKING FORWARD— A Bright Future
With the fear of a recession tightening its grip on industries like real estate and construction, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is a source of stability for the local and state economies, as well as its members. The Tribe has nearly 2,600 employees on a payroll that exceeds $100 million. As many local businesses and housing developments downsize or shutter their doors, Agua Caliente continues to grow.
Over the next ten years, the Tribe plans to invest a billion dollars in new projects.
One of the most anticipated is the redevelopment of Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs. Through a series of acquisitions and consolidations, the property will be transformed into a sprawling 5-star resort with a 420-room luxury hotel, spa, fitness center and a 46,000 square-foot show room. The present-day casino will expand by 60,000 square feet and an additional 40,000 square feet of commercial space will be built and leased. The project is expected to be completed in 2010 and will serve the dual purpose of expanding the Tribe’s business opportunities as well as supporting the revitalization of downtown Palm Springs.
Other projects in the works include: a 2,000-seat headline entertainment venue set to open this December adjacent to Agua Caliente Casino • Resort • Spa in Rancho Mirage, a retail expansion project at the same location, two housing developments in the Palm Springs area and the expansion of the Tribal Administration Plaza offices. The Tribe also intends to break ground this year on a new $40 million cultural museum featuring multiple galleries, an education center and 150-seat theater. All of this, in addition to the two office complexes, housing development and championship Indian Canyons Golf Resort the Tribe has completed over the past 4 years.
This year, an annexation agreement also goes into effect between the Tribe and the City of Rancho Mirage, allowing the Tribal land upon which the new hotel stands to be included within the boundaries of the City. The agreement allows the City to collect a 10% bed tax that would have otherwise gone to the county, in exchange for emergency services. The Tribe will also infuse the City’s coffers with $5 million to offset the impact of increased traffic flow, and to generally improve and enhance the City the casino now calls home.
GIVING BACK—Being a Good Neighbor
Because of the Tribe’s enormous success and because of memories of a less prosperous time, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has continually shared its good fortune with the local community. Every April since the first casino in Palm Springs opened its doors, the Tribe has contributed funds to local civic and public service agencies, youth groups, Veterans organizations and more. Last April, the Tribe gave away $1.3 million, bringing the total given away to $20 million since the program began in 1996.
The Agua Caliente Tribe is also making great strides to protect the environment and their ancestral lands which are home to the magnificent Tahquitz and Indian Canyons recreation areas. Last fall, the Tribe’s Planning and Natural Resources Division completed a Tribal Habitat Conservation Plan. The Plan identifies native plant and animal species in need of protection and delineates procedures for mitigation of future development of their 31,500 acre reservation.
“We have accomplished so much in the past decade,” Milanovich said. “We have created a stable foundation upon which our tribal members and our community can build their future, allowing them to pursue their dreams with confidence.”
Agua Caliente & Vallecito Regional Parks
Palm Springs Hikes
Palm Springs, California
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