SONORA — The $22 million hotel at Black Oak Casino is nearing completion, and the first of its more than 100 employees have begun training.
When it opens May 1, it will be Tuolumne County's largest hotel and biggest conference center.
It is expected to boost gambling revenues for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians and bolster tourism for the region.
The 148-room resort will provide visitors their first overnight option at Black Oak, which is on the rural Me-Wuk reservation near the unincorporated community of Tuolumne City.
"They can game one day(inside the casino) and then the next day they can go see the local attractions of which there are just so many up here in the Mother Lode," said Ron Patel, who has been Black Oak's manager for 12 years.
When the tribe opened its permanent, expanded casino in 2005, it had planned to build the hotel by 2007.
Then the recession hit, and Patel said gaming revenue declined. He said California has 63 casinos on Indian land, and they all struggled during the down economy.
"It wasn't the right time to open a big hotel," Patel explained. So Black Oak postponed its hotel construction and decided to build something smaller than originally envisioned.
Now gambling proceeds are picking up, Patel said, and Black Oak has spent 18 months building its hotel thanks to a loan from Chase Bank.
The 116,000-square-foot facility is among the largest buildings in the county. It spans five floors overlooking Turnback Creek.
The vast majority of companies hired to build the hotel are from Tuolumne and surrounding counties, Patel said. He estimated that about 60 workers per day have been laboring on the site.
Besides construction jobs, the hotel will create permanent employment for about 109 people, including 65 full-time positions.
The casino and the hotel have been hiring employees, and most openings have been filled by Tuolumne County residents.
Patel said the casino added a valet parking service, extended its food service hours and hired more office staff.
The hotel hired everything from bellboys to lug around suitcases to a concierge who will book excursions for guests.
"We're shooting for a four-star, four-diamond rating," said Paul Medawar, the hotel's general manager.
Medawar is enthusiastic about the luxury features his hotel will offer. The 400-square-foot standard rooms include 42-inch high-definition LCD flat panel TVs, refrigerators, microwaves, safety deposit boxes and Keurig coffee brewers.
There also will be upscale suites (with even larger TVs) and jetted spas.
And all rooms will get automatic-flushing toilets, doors that open with the wave of a key card and high-speed wireless Internet access. There will be a fitness center, swimming pool and combination gift shop-bistro.
Larger convention center
On the bottom level will be the 6,000-square-foot conference center that can accommodate more than 250 guests for a sit-down wedding dinner or be divided into four meeting rooms for a business crowd.
"We're confident we will be able to host conventions and get corporate clients to make the trip up here," Medawar said.
That would be new for Tuolumne County, and it could be a lucrative addition to the region's economy.
The Black Oak conference center "is going to be able to attract a whole new market for us because it will be a larger and more full-
service site than we have available now," said Nanci Sikes, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.
Black Oak Casino is one of the region's big tourist attractions, Sikes said, but the conference facility will expand its economic impact.
Even some similar businesses see the advantage of Black Oak's expansion.
Tuolumne County venues "are not in competition with each other. We're really in competition with other areas," such as Monterey for tourists and convention business, said Chris Link, who manages the Best Western Plus Sonora Oaks Hotel and Conference Center.
Link's conference room can only seat 150, and he recognizes the need for a larger facility.
"It will bring new business to our region," Link said. His hotel is about a 10-minute drive from Black Oak. Link contends that expanding tourism there will benefit the county's entire hospitality industry.
But adding 148 hotel rooms on a reservation that does not have to pay taxes may put Tuolumne's existing hotels at a competitive disadvantage.
"The tribe is a sovereign nation that doesn't pay any taxes," Patel confirmed.
That means it avoids all property taxes and income taxes. And it didn't have to go through the government's often-costly permit process before building the hotel.
The reservation does have to pay employment taxes such as Social Security, disability and unemployment insurance.
Patel said the tribe contributes to the economy in other ways, and he estimated that the casino and hotel will have a $30 million annual payroll next year.
Nevertheless, being on a reservation does give Black Oak a tax advantage, acknowledged Sikes, whose agency is financed in part by the 10 percent transient occupancy tax Tuolumne hotels must charge guests.
Black Oak guests will not have to pay that tax.
"There's going to be a competitive factor that may hurt some properties," Sikes said, noting how she's heard grumbling about that from some hotel owners. "I'm hopeful this will not be something that divides us."
Since it doesn't have to collect a transient occupancy tax, the Black Oak hotel plans to charge its guests a 10 percent fee that the Me-Wuk tribe will keep to cover the costs of things such as fire protection, safety patrols and road maintenance.
For more information about employment opportunities, go to www.blackoakcasino.com/hotel/hotel-employment.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.