Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Fortune Bay makes big impact

Grows from small bingo hall to major regional employer

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/12/16

TOWER—It started out as a bingo hall tucked among the tall pines on the Vermilion Reservation, way back in October 1986. Today, as Fortune Bay Resort and Casino readies the celebration of its 30th …

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Fortune Bay makes big impact

Grows from small bingo hall to major regional employer

Posted

TOWER—It started out as a bingo hall tucked among the tall pines on the Vermilion Reservation, way back in October 1986. Today, as Fortune Bay Resort and Casino readies the celebration of its 30th anniversary, it has become among the largest employers in the region and one of the Arrowhead’s top vacation destinations.

“The growth here has been phenomenal,” said longtime Fortune Bay Resort Casino team member Greg Northrup. “I think we had something like 56 employees when we first started and now we have over 450.”

That makes Fortune Bay a tremendous economic asset to the region, according to Tower Mayor Josh Carlson. “They’re great for our local economy and they bring a lot of folks to the area,” Carlson said. Indeed, the resort served nearly 90,000 overnight guests in Fortune Bay’s just-completed fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. And because Fortune Bay opted to join the Lake Vermilion lodging tax system, the hotel generates more than $80,000 annually in taxes earmarked for promotion of the Lake Vermilion area.

Fortune Bay’s drawing power is helped by top-notch guest services as well as a number of outstanding amenities, such as the facility’s marina with its direct access to Lake Vermilion, and The Wilderness golf course, one of the state’s top-rated courses. It also regularly hosts nationally-known performing artists, in both indoor and outdoor venues. They’ll be featuring some tribute acts later this year, with a Johnny Cash act on Friday, Nov. 25 and John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party on Friday, Dec. 9, featuring an accurate re-creation of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper’s final tour.

It all adds up to a big economic effect, said Brian K. Anderson, interim public relations manager at Fortune Bay. “I think Fortune Bay has had a tremendous impact, and not only for Bois Forte band members,” he said. “We do have a Native American preference when hiring, but currently around 75 percent of our team members are non-band members. I think that speaks volumes to the opportunities Fortune Bay affords to people living here in northeastern Minnesota.”

While excellent guest service is at the top of Fortune Bay’s overall mission, the organization also works hard to be a good neighbor to area communities, notes Bois Forte Tribal Chair Cathy Chavers. “Fortune Bay has been extremely effective in building relationships with area organizations and agencies that will continue for years to come,” she said.

Anderson said those relationships are enhanced by Fortune Bay’s regular assistance with local fundraisers, benefit events, and other good deeds. “Like many businesses, we work with area chambers of commerce to help them through memberships, sponsorships and more,” said Anderson, who has worked at Fortune Bay for over 10 years. “We are very involved in the Lake Vermilion Resort Association because we know the importance of protecting the long-term health of the lake and the importance of tourism in the area.”

Fortune Bay also purchases many goods and services from local vendors every month and in some cases, every week. It’s that commitment to the area that makes Northrup proud to say he works at Fortune Bay Resort Casino.

A personal impact for many

While the statistics may tell the big story of Fortune Bay, there are hundreds of more personal stories that speak to the impact the business has had on so many in the region.

Northrup, who moved to the area in 1981, said he appreciate the opportunities that Fortune Bay has provided. “It wasn’t easy making ends meet back then,” said Northrup of his early days working at the bingo hall. But both pay and benefits have improved over the years as Fortune Bay has grown, and it’s made a real difference in the lives of many. “This company has provided me with a full-time job with benefits and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity they have given me,” said Northrup.

Anderson said attractive wages, excellent health insurance and other benefits have made it possible for many of its employees to remain in the area, even during economic ups and downs.

The changes on the reservation since the days of the bingo hall have been equally dramatic, notes Chavers. “It has improved the lives of our people by allowing us to enhance services and programs to our tribal members,” she said.

Indeed, the success of Fortune Bay has significantly increased the capacity of tribal government to bring forward other projects to enhance life on the reservation, from new housing, a wellness center, a heritage center, and much improved medical facilities.

Longtime Vermilion representative on the tribal council, Ray Toutloff, agreed. “If you compare what it was like here 30 years ago, you wouldn’t recognize the place,” he said. “Gaming has done a lot to improve our quality of life.” The Bois Forte Band reinvests its gaming proceeds in a wide range of public services and other benefits, according to Toutloff. He notes that many of the major improvement projects that the band has undertaken, both at Vermilion and Nett Lake, required local matching funds, which wouldn’t have been available prior to the creation of Fortune Bay.

Fortune Bay to say thank you at Saturday event

While Fortune Bay has a number of promotions and specials going on the entire month of October, their biggest is Guest Appreciation Day, set for Saturday, Oct. 15. Free games, free food, and entertainment are all on the agenda for the event, set to run from noon to 3 p.m. in the Woodlands Ballroom.

“It’s our way of celebrating our guests and thanking them for 30 great years,” said Anderson. “Even though October is our anniversary month, it really does belong to our guests as they are the ones who continue to support us.”

Toutloff said he hopes that residents from the local area turn out for the event. “I know Fortune Bay really appreciates the local patronage,” he said. “We know there are other casinos in the region and we don’t take our guests for granted. We’re continuously working to improve our services.”

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