Attracting business clients a key factor to latest Silver Reef expansion

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 8, 2013 

LUMMI RESERVATION - The Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa has taken a steady approach to growth, and officials believe the latest expansion is an important next step for bringing business into Whatcom County.

On Thursday, May 9, Silver Reef will unveil its new event center to the public with a concert by former Chicago frontman Peter Cetera. While the public will see the entertainment aspect of the facility on May 9, officials say the 10,000-square-foot event center, along with nearby boardrooms and a seminar movie theater, are geared toward business conferences and conventions.

"This (expansion) is based on need; it's something we've heard from the business community for years," said Aaron Thomas, marketing director at Silver Reef, noting that they plan to have entertainment shows about once a month in the center.

This is an important addition, he said, because this area doesn't have many options for groups who need a large meeting room, particularly given the recent closure of Blaine's Semiahmoo hotel.

The $29 million expansion also includes some aspects that are geared toward regular casino customers: 225 additional gaming slots with new titles are near the event center, as well as a new restaurant called The Cantina, which will offer Mexican and Latin American food. The restaurant will have seating for 42 in the bar area and 75 in the main restaurant, offering a range of menu items from the basics to high-end dishes, according to Thomas. The general contractor on the project is Aecon Buildings Inc. out of Seattle.

He said the restaurant addition is partly because of the success seen at the other Silver Reef restaurants. Eateries tend to have a tough time breaking even in casinos, he said.

"We have people who come into the restaurants and don't spend a dime in the casino," said Thomas. "I think it's a testimony to our great chefs."

While the event center, which will seat 1,000 people for the Peter Cetera concert, adds a significant amount of meeting space to Whatcom County, the nearby theater room will provide something new to interest companies in this region. The room has more than 150 leather stadium-style chairs on several tiered levels in front of multiple screens.

Thomas said they hope to attract businesses interested in holding stakeholder meetings and presentations; they've already had inquiries from companies from the Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., areas as well as from local organizations. He said they also are pondering other uses for the room, such as showing NFL games and other sporting events.

Since opening in 2002, the Silver Reef has experienced customer growth every year except during the global financial crisis in 2008, said Joseph Canfora, CEO of Merit Management Group, the company that operates the casino under contract with the Lummi tribe. He said that many regional facilities like Silver Reef have been able to thrive coming out of the recession.

Silver Reef certainly has been an employment driver: The workforce has grown from 225 in 2002 to about 670 with the completion of the latest expansion project.

Thomas said one factor is the Canadian market. When the casino first opened, Thomas estimates 40 percent of Silver Reef's customers were Canadians. Today the estimate has risen to 48 percent from Canada.

With this expansion complete, Silver Reef is considering other ways to continue growing. Canfora said a new hotel tower is near the top of the list. Thomas agreed, noting that the current 105-room hotel had an occupancy rate of 91 percent in 2012.

Canfora said other things they are considering include adding retail and other forms of family entertainment businesses.

"We've stuck with a well thought-out, phased plan in order to not put the tribe at risk," Canfora said. "Whatcom County is a great place to do business, based on the demographics of the area."

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his business blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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