Southwestern Michigan's first casino is transforming an area long known as a pit stop for out-of-state tourists into a vacation destination in its own right.
While many Chicagoans have long enjoyed holiday weekends and summertime vacations in or near the quaint harbor town of New Buffalo, other Michigan-bound leisure travelers may be less familiar with the region. But with last summer's opening of the Four Winds Casino Resort, the enormous and luxurious gambling complex just off Interstate 94 near Lake Michigan and the Indiana border, the secret is out.
"It gives people more options at the gateway of Michigan to enjoy themselves even more when they come to the New Buffalo area," said Jerry Welsh, owner of Garden Grove Bed and Breakfast in nearby Union Pier.
Besides the casino, visitors to Harbor Country can stroll on beaches, shop at antique stores, wander through art galleries, tour wineries and discover hidden gems of restaurants. The region includes a 10-mile stretch of Lake Michigan communities from New Buffalo to Sawyer, plus the inland village of Three Oaks
The early success of Four Winds appears to be having a ripple effect on the region's tourism economy, said Pam Sudlow, who was executive director of the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce until late April, when she left to start her own business.
Local hotels, inns and B&Bs are filling more rooms. Several new restaurants and retail stores recently opened or soon will open near the casino. Plans are being made for a 24-hour daycare center to serve casino employees.
The chamber has gotten calls from bus-tour companies and small groups planning casino trips that want to find out more about other local activities, she said.
"Four Winds is part of their visit and that's what drew them to the area, but they've wanted to stay in a bed-and-breakfast and do other things," Sudlow said. "Our lodging properties have been benefiting because the casino is very short of rooms."
The 3,000-slot casino, in Berrien County's New Buffalo Township, has 165 hotel rooms and suites starting at $299 per night. That's compared with the $114 basic room rate at the Blue Chip Casino Hotel in nearby Michigan City, Ind., and the $129 rate at the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, about a three-hour drive up the coast of Lake Michigan.
Four Winds also has six restaurants and 3,400 parking spaces, said John Miller, tribal chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Dowagiac-based tribe that owns the casino.
Business has been so strong that an expansion already is in the works that probably will add more lodging, restaurants and parking spaces.
"Right now, we're in discussions with our tribal government and our managing partner (Minneapolis-based Lakes Entertainment Inc.), and we're deciding exactly what we want to do in the next phase," Miller said.
While the casino is the first in southwestern Michigan, it is not without competition, with Blue Chip only about 10 miles away. Still, during Welsh's eight years as owner of Garden Grove, he doesn't recall many of his lodgers expressing an interest in going to the Michigan City casino.
On the other hand, an increasing number in recent months have mentioned plans to visit Four Winds, he said.
"It's something else to do on a rainy day for our clientele," Welsh said. "They're here mostly just to decompress from corporate America."
Angie Siewert, owner of the Sans-Souci Euro Inn, about three miles east of New Buffalo, called the casino "an added amenity" for her guests. But she cautioned it's too soon to know how much of a long-term effect Four Winds will have on the local tourism economy, particularly with $4-per-gallon gasoline.
"The market is still tough at the moment," she said. "I see what's happening at many inns, I talk to other innkeepers, and people are just not traveling as they used to, which is probably understandable."
Another travel option is on the horizon. Amtrak recently reached an agreement with the city of New Buffalo to build a passenger station beside the railroad's high-speed line at the lakefront. Starting sometime this summer, riders will be offered four daily nonstop hourlong trips to and from downtown Chicago. Both commuters and tourists are expected to take advantage of the rides.
Starlight Tours and Travel in Battle Creek has offered weekly bus tours to Four Winds since it opened Aug. 2, said owner Denise Kendall. Between 30 and 40 people, mostly seniors, board the company's buses each Thursday to take the day trips.
"They like the food," she said. "There's a lot of penny (slot) machines, a lot of nickel machines, and it's brand new and beautiful. All the new casinos are beautiful like that. People like to check them out."
Four Winds is nestled at the end of a scenic, mile-long driveway that meanders through a forest, and it's easy to quickly forget that it sits near a busy interstate highway. The casino portion of the complex resembles a huge, upscale lodge.
A rotunda just inside the main entrance features two giant fireplaces and the beginnings of a large, circular mural being painted by a Pokagon artist. To one side of the main promenade are several retail shops and specialty boutiques, to the other is the gaming floor itself.
The darkly lit, arena-sized chamber is filled with the ringing sounds of slot machines but with a lot less neon than in typical Las Vegas casinos. There are 100 gaming tables for playing poker, blackjack, baccarat, roulette and craps.
The restaurants are scattered throughout the casino and offer everything from buffet-style fare to fine dining, from sandwiches to sushi to 28-day dry-aged steaks.
A gambling area set aside for high rollers features hundred-dollar slots and a luxuriously appointed room for the highest of the high, complete with a private entrance and drop-off area for their limos.
"When people are here, they feel very, very special," casino manager Matt Harkness said.