Arizona slot players have plenty of pull

Dec 24, 2002 5:49 AM

Have you driven down to Payson, Arizona, lately?

You say no, that you don’t even know where it is.

It’s right smack in the middle of Arizona, near Kohls Ranch and the Tonto Natural Bridge, not far the Mazatzal Park, close to the Mogollon Rim and Mesa.

Now that you know where it is, you still want to know why you should go there?

Well, for one thing, it’s where slot machine game manufacturers go these days to see what games you like to play. Payson has become sort of the White Sands testing site of the slot games world, an out-of-the-way site where Beta testing can be done to see if people who play slots seriously like what new ideas are being offered.

How Payson, Arizona, became White Sands is an interesting story.

The remote mountain town is the home of the Mazatzal Casino. A year ago it invited a group of slot machine companies to come down, or up, or over, and test their new games ideas on 200 of Mazatzal’s best players. When you live in a place like Payson, slot machines can be a saving grace, and Mazatzal has some very serious players.

This year seven companies showed up, with some 30 new game ideas for the natives to test.

One of them, a Payson player named Larry Cornell, said he thought the idea was terrific. "That’s the only way the gaming industry’s going to know what the public wants," Larry said. The testing, by the way, was in demonstration mode only, and no money was at stake. But it could be important, because Arizona’s citizens approved Proposition 202 last month, which expanded Indian gaming in the state, to the extent that the number of slots will increase by up to 75% over the next five years, according to azcentral.com, to 15,675 machines operated by 17 Indian tribes.

By the way, Proposition 202 also introduces blackjack into the Arizona picture, and the casinos are desperate for dealers. They are looking for experienced ones wherever they can find them, and expect to train 1,200 or more. If $5.15 an hour and up to $200 a day in tips interests you, and you like scenic country, Arizona could be for you.

The Mazatzal casino, incidentally, now uses its clever testing outing as an annual VIP party, and rewards its best customers with food and drinks and a good time while testing new games. The manufacturers like it too. Jim Heater, a salesman for WMS Gaming, said it gave his company a chance to build loyalty with Mazatzal, and whether the casino bought or not it was still worth it to participate.

While all of this is going on in Payson, there is some interesting casino news out east.

The Oneida Indian Nation operates Turning Stone casino near Vernon in Central New York. It is planning a $308 million expansion, and sent a prospectus to potential investors recently. In doing so it divulged, for the first time, a detailed disclosure of its business, and how much money it makes.

The numbers are significant, even by Las Vegas standards.

Turning Stone revenues in the last fiscal year ending September 30, were more than $232 million, including the casino, hotel, restaurants and the showroom. The tribe’s profit was nearly $70 million. One interesting line in the prospectus concerned the Vernon Downs harness racetrack, just four miles down the road from Turning Stone. Las Vegas investor Shawn Scott loaned the track (which has been in financial difficulty) millions, and currently owns 4% of it, but hasn’t completed a purchase as yet, and currently a Scott associate, John Baldwin, is having licensing differences with the New York racing and wagering board. Scott bought Delta Downs three years ago for $10 million and then sold it to Boyd Gaming for $120 million or so after slots came to Louisiana tracks. Slots are coming to Vernon Downs, too, most likely sometime next year. The Turning Stone prospectus revealed that the casino has considered investing in or buying Vernon Downs, saying, "Vernon Downs at times has been offered for sale, and the nation has at times expressed interest in its operations."

This one could turn into a very interesting story.