eKC feature
July 13, 2007


‘Wyandotte’ casino will be different from the rest
by Tom Bogdon

In a metropolitan area that soon will have three casinos on the Kansas side and four on the Missouri side, the Wyandotte Indian Nation’s 7th Street Casino in downtown Kansas City, KS will be far from the largest but it arguably will be among the most interesting casinos in the market.

(l) Jim Hunt, VP of Gaming Operations for the Wyandotte Nation and Second Chief Billy Friend in front of one of the marble pillars said to be the “design inspiration” for the new casino. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Expected to open for business in October or November, the 7th Street Casino will be operated by the Wyandotte Nation, a tribe that at one time made its home in (and gave its name to) Wyandotte County, Kansas.

And the Wyandottes currently are governed by an authentic warrior, First Chief Leaford Bearskin, who was a decorated bomber pilot and crew chief for the Army Air Force during World War II after enlisting in 1939. Because Bearskin was and is a pilot who always has been fascinated by the skies, a tribal elder gave him the name “Flying Eagle.”

The 7th Street Casino will also be a departure from the area’s other casinos in that it will be located at 803 North 7th St., across Ann Avenue from City Hall in the heart of downtown Kansas City, KS.

In contrast, the four Missouri-side casinos are located far apart on the banks of the Missouri River, away from business centers. In Kansas, the “destination” casino recently approved by Wyandotte County voters is expected to be in western Wyandotte County in the vicinity of the Kansas Speedway. And the Woodlands horse and dog track next spring will feature slot machines, but it, too, will be quite a distance from an urban center.

Chief Bearskin, interviewed by phone at the Wyandotte Nation’s headquarters in Wyandotte, OK, believes the 7th Street Casino will provide a major boost for downtown KCK, which has struggled for decades in regaining its economic footing.

“I think we will do more to revitalize downtown Kansas City, Kansas than any other venture could do,” said Bearskin, who is 86 years old. “We’ll bring jobs into the area. We’ll bring people into the area. Not only that, we will also pay the city for municipal services such as fire and police.

“The Wyandotte Nation will be a great thing for Kansas City, Kansas,” Bearskin continued. “We’re community-minded. We’ll be involved in the school system. We’re looking forward to getting acquainted with the people and businesses in the area.”

Mayor/CEO Joe Reardon of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS, agrees that the 7th Street Casino will be a community asset, and that it can play a role in jump-starting downtown revitalization.

“I think it has a chance to be a piece of the puzzle in our downtown redevelopment efforts,” Reardon said. “I’ve had direct dialogue with the Wyandotte leadership including Chief Bearskin. The discussions have been cooperative in nature. Based on that, and what the Wyandottes are doing, they will fit in with our plan.”

Reardon noted that the Unified Government’s Governing Body recently approved a new downtown master plan that will compliment the Wyandotte Nation’s investment in renovating and remodeling a 35,000-square-foot former Shrine building. The mayor said that, for example, some visitors to the 7th Street Casino will stay at the new Hilton Garden Inn at 520 Minnesota Ave.

“It appears they (the Wyandottes) are building a quality facility,” Reardon said. “We have discussed an arrangement by which casino patrons can park in the evenings and on weekends in the nearby city parking facilities.

According to Second Chief Billy Friend, who visited the facility recently, the land and building that Building Trades craftsmen are now converting into a casino is held in trust for the Wyandotte Nation by the federal government. Adjacent to this property is the historic Huron Cemetery, an Indian burial ground.

The current construction work at the former Shrine building is actually the second attempt to use the property as a casino.

In October 2003, the Wyandottes opened a makeshift casino in four trailers that were equipped with about 165 slot machines. In April 2004, Phill Kline, then Kansas Attorney general, and law enforcement officers raided the casino and seized the slot machines, equipment and cash.

However, the Wyandotte Nation filed suit in U.S. District Court and, eventually, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Kline, as an agent of the state of Kansas, acted illegally in raiding and closing down the casino because it is located on federal land. (Kline is now Johnson County District Attorney.)

Billy Friend, 43, said that when the casino opens this fall, it will be equipped with 400 Class II slots. He said that eventually the casino will have some Las Vegas-style table games and somewhat more sophisticated Class III slot machines. However, Friend said that under law bringing in these machines will require approval of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the form of a compact.

This reporter and a photographer for eKC online toured the four-story Shrine building with Friend and Jim Hunt, vice president of Gaming Operations for the Wyandotte Nation, which last April opened its first and somewhat larger casino in Wyandotte, OK.

Hunt noted that special care is being taken to maintain the historic charm of the brick Shrine building, even with extensive internal and exterior remodeling.

“We are building the casino around the 12 spectacular, original green marble pillars,” said Hunt. “They have become our design inspiration.”

Lucky’s Restaurant and Lounge will be on the first floor. Lucky’s will be a steak and chophouse featuring local fare served in a 1920’s atmosphere. The next two levels will be dedicated to gambling. Administrative offices will be on the fourth floor.

“The 7th Street Casino will be more than a gaming facility — it will be an experience themed around the bygone days of Kansas City, Kansas’ rich past,” said Gaming President and CEO Dennis Pontiere. “It will transport our customers to a very remarkable time in Kansas City’s history.”

The Wyandotte Indian Nation 7th Street Casino in downtown Kansas City, KS in the former Shrine building is slated to open later this fall. (photo by Ron Johnson)

The Wyandotte Nation has a rich history, which, of course, extends back before the discovery of America in 1492. At that time, the Wyandottes lived north of the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada. Because of tribal rivalries, the Wyandottes moved to the Detroit area around 1600.

In the 1700s, the tribe moved again to Ohio in the upper Sandusky River Valley. With pressure from white settlers and the United States government, the Wyandottes, then numbering a few thousands, moved to what would become Wyandotte County in the 1840s through treaty agreements with the U.S. government. In 1867, the tribe moved to Indian country in northeast Oklahoma, although some remain in eastern Kansas to this day.

Under federal regulations covering Indian gaming, the proceeds of the 7th Street Casino as well as the Wyandotte Nation Casino in Wyandotte, OK, are earmarked for health, economic development and other services for members of the Wyandotte Nation, and no direct payments are made to tribal members, except those who are casino or tribal employees.

As a pilot in World War II, Chief Bearskin flew B-24 Liberator heavy bombers in heading off a Japanese invasion of Australia and New Guinea, receiving many decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, Bearskin flew missions in the Berlin Airlift and was later stationed in Korea, though in a noncombat role. After the military, he became a civilian employee with the Strategic Air Command and was involved in testing missiles at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Bearskin was elected chief in 1983 after returning to Oklahoma.

“When I was a kid, I looked up and saw airplanes flying,” Flying Eagle said of his want to be a pilot. “I always wanted to be up there, never dreaming that I would.”

Although the Wyandotte Nation has a staff pilot, Bearskin sometimes still takes the wheel of the nation’s Twin Engine Piper Navajo for flights to Kansas City and other destinations. Now the First Chief is looking forward to the grand opening of the 7th Street casino, which in fact will bring the Wyandotte Nation back to Wyandotte County.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


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