How a tiny California tribe out-dealt Trump over their shared casino

Donald Trump hated tribal casinos until his face was splashed all over one.

In 1993, when the most famous thing about him was his real estate empire, Trump was called to testify before the House Native American Affairs subcommittee about the possible expansion of casinos owned by tribal leaders. He was characteristically bullying, baselessly alleging tribes were in league with the mafia and predicting it was set to be “the biggest scandal ever” since Al Capone.

“They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said of tribal casino owners, adding, “I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations.”

It was a typical ploy by Trump, who has spent his business, personal and political career ruthlessly demeaning his competition. But his tune changed overnight in in 2000, when he suddenly aligned with a tiny California tribe to unveil his first casino west of the Mississippi: Trump 29.

Over the next several years, though, a band of Mission Indians quietly outmaneuvered the famed dealmaker, sending Trump packing out of California’s entertainment scene for good.

Trump 29 was not created from scratch. It was a rebrand of Spotlight 29 Casino, a 1995 gaming resort opened in Coachella by the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, who only had 13 adult members at the time. By the dawn of the new millennium, things were going well at Spotlight 29, but management was looking to make it a bigger, flashier draw. Along came Trump, who was deep in debt and looking for easy cash flows.

The partnership with Spotlight 29 seemed ideal for both parties. Trump would have an instant source of revenue to pay off his debts, no new construction required, and Spotlight 29 would have a big-name partner to draw in crowds. They announced a tentative deal in 2000. The tribe would retain ownership of the casino while Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts managed day-to-day operations. The five-year deal would give Trump Hotels a 30% cut of profits. The partners also agreed on a $60 million expansion that Trump personally would help finance.

“We love the location. We really like the people,” Trump told reporters. “We think the relationship is going to be a very strong one.”

The first step was Trumpifying the hotel, and that meant adding flames. Lots of flames. Riffing off their new “play with fire” catchphrase, Trump 29 built a decorative 68-foot-wide wall of faux flames. Billboards went up along Highway 10 with Trump’s face emblazoned on them. “Where the desert meets the Donald,” many read. Down the road, the competing Agua Caliente Casino put up its own billboard.

“Where the desert meets the Don,” it proclaimed. It advertised an upcoming Don Rickles comedy show.

In April 2002, the casino hosted its grand reopening. Trump arrived, flanked by go-go dancers and feted with fireworks. “When they really come, you know it’s going to be that way forever. We’re going to have a beautiful love fest,” he said to the assembled media.

“Whether they love or hate him, they are going to want to come see what he has got,” general manager Mark Lefever told the Desert Sun.

Spotlight 29 casino in Coachella, Calif.

Google Street View

For a while, this proved true. Trump 29’s expanded slot machines and big-time entertainment venue drew crowds. In 2002 alone, they hosted Cheap Trick, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tony Bennett, Tony Orlando, the Chippendales, Marc Anthony and two shows with Bill Cosby. But things were going from bad to worse for Trump’s empire.

At the time of Trump 29’s opening, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts was trading for just $2 per share. “His balance sheet limits him,” Bear Stearns analyst Jason Ader told the Associated Press the year prior. “He’s the most leveraged of the major companies out there.”

In 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (they would declare bankruptcy twice more in 2009 and 2014). Well-established and making plenty of money, the tribe saw a way to wrest all the profits back from its floundering partner. In December, they announced they would be buying Trump out for $6 million. But that wasn’t all it would cost to de-Trumpify the casino. A tribal spokesperson told the Desert Sun they estimated it would cost $2 million for rebranding and new marketing. All the Trump logos would have to be removed, from major signage to his name on security guard badges. They saw it as money well spent, though.

“No Indian tribe would want to get involved in someone else’s bankruptcy,” tribal lawyer Gary Kovall said.

Trump’s team issued an odd press release at the dissolution of the partnership, saying, “It’s now time for the tribe to assume management responsibility,” and adding they were “proud of what we have done together.”

If you’re one for David and Goliath comparisons, it was a win for the little guy. Swept clean of Trump’s image, Trump 29 became Spotlight 29, today still a popular casino in the Coachella Valley. They didn’t need Trump at all, it seems, to make plenty of money.

Gone are the fire wall and the Trump billboards. All that’s now left of the Trump 29 era are the occasional bits of memorabilia that pop up on eBay, like this Trump 29 bobblehead, sold for just $10.55.

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