BISMARCK — In the early months of the pandemic, an oil-producing Native American tribe in North Dakota was looking for somewhere to invest a cut of the nearly $1.7 billion in tax revenues they've collected from oil drilling on their reservation over the last decade and a half. They found it in a bankruptcy auction that chopped up a large, vacant property just off the central casino-lined corridor of Las Vegas, Nevada.
And though leadership of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, doesn't have plans for the empty 8.7 acres they claimed for $12 million last July, tribal Chairman Mark Fox said they could use it to build anything from a tribally operated casino to a parking lot.
“We saw it as an opportunity to get land — prime real estate land — in Las Vegas for a good price, and that’s essentially why we went there,” Fox said.
The recently acquired satellite property of the Three Affiliated Tribes, whose Fort Berthold Indian Reservation accounts for close to a fifth of North Dakota's oil production, is located just off the south end of the Vegas strip, the city’s famous commercial and gambling hub, near the 43-story Mandalay Bay casino and just over a mile from the newly completed Allegiant Stadium, home to the Las Vegas Raiders NFL team.
The 95 E. Ali Baba Lane property was part of a larger 38.5 acre lot that was divided after an ambitious and long-struggling Ferris wheel venture went bankrupt. For the last year, the lot has gone largely unused, Fox said, with the notable exception of a recent 10-day lease for the set of American Ninja Warrior, an obstacle-based reality television show.
“We’re still in that phase of trying to develop a concept of development for the acreage,” Fox said, adding the tribe is meeting with developers and discussing possible uses for the property. “Nothing beyond that right now."
Fox called the prospect of constructing a tribally owned casino “a suggestion” and “a possibility” but added other ideas include transforming it into a pay-for-use parking lot.
The Three Affiliated Tribes already owns and operates a casino on Fort Berthold, the Four Bears Casino and Lodge, which completed an extensive expansion in the last few years.
Mike Mixer, a broker with Colliers International that oversaw the bankruptcy auction, said he viewed the Three Affiliated Tribes’ purchase as a “strategic acquisition” and noted the property has the most diverse zoning designation possible in Las Vegas, allowing for use as a casino, retail space or numerous other commercial opportunities.
The previous venture on that property, the massive, unfinished SkyVue Ferris wheel, is somewhat notorious in Las Vegas for failing to take off after launching almost simultaneously with a separate Ferris wheel project a few miles up the strip, said Josh Swissman, a partner with the Las Vegas-based hospitality and casino consultancy The Strategy Organization.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, developers envisioned SkyVue a decade ago as a 500-foot observation wheel and complex costing north of $100 million dollars. When the project went under, it left behind two large columns — seemingly support structures for the wheel — that have stood unused on the lot for years.
Swissman said SkyVue failed because of competition from the other Ferris wheel and noted he thinks the property less than a half mile off the strip could be a smart investment for the Three Affiliated Tribes.
“The thought about building a parking lot is actually a pretty smart thought,” he said, noting the proximity to major Vegas casinos like Mandalay Bay and the new Raiders stadium, which is likely to need more parking space as sports venues return to 100% capacity.
Easily developed space in that location could later be flipped for a big gain, he said, especially if a large investor comes along who wants to buy up the entire former SkyVue lot for the construction of a new casino.
“A parking lot is not the craziest idea in the world. I think it’s a good one, actually,” Swissman said.
With the pandemic economy on the mend, Mixer noted, property values in Las Vegas are going up.
"I believe that property has probably already appreciated, and I'd expect it to continue to appreciate," he said of the Three Affiliated Tribes' lot.
Several other American Indian tribes recently entered the Vegas market, as well. Swissman praised the “shrewd decision” of the California-based San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to scoop up the strip-adjacent Palms Resort earlier this month. He also noted the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut recently took over operations of another casino, while the Seminole Tribe of Florida was vocal about its interest in Vegas business ventures.
Fox said the Las Vegas lot is the only property that the Three Affiliated Tribes owns outside of North Dakota, though he noted they lease a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, for a sobriety and transitional care center.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.