By MIKE PATRICK/Staff writer CDA Press

BONNERS FERRY – After more than a quarter century working together, building a powerful economic engine in a sparsely populated area, you’d think the Kootenai Tribe and Hagadone Hospitality wouldn’t make a basic business mistake of this magnitude.

But they did. With the just-completed expansion and upgrade of the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa in Bonners Ferry, the rooms at the Inn are so comfortable, so packed with amenities, guests are likely to spend more time in their rooms than in the revenue-generating gaming rooms.

When informed by a recent guest of the oversight, Hagadone Hospitality President Jerry Jaeger said simply, “Oh-oh.”

And then he laughed.

Jaeger could laugh because he knows the sparkling new, 36-room Kootenai Falls Lodge hotel addition is only going to make the overall experience for visitors even more likely to bring them back.

On the heels of a major remodel to all riverfront guest rooms last year, the Kootenai Tribe, led by Tribal Chair Jennifer Porter, authorized an even bigger investment with construction of Kootenai Falls Lodge. It’s named after the nearby Kootenai Falls, a holy place to tribal members.

Although the new two-story addition has only been open since May 10, the uptick was immediate, and the long-range forecast is fiscally sunny.

“You have 36 new rooms and – boom! – you’re full,” said Tom Turpin, general manager of the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa since its opening in 1986. Turpin quickly added that several nights sold out instantly, but rooms are still available most nights this summer.

Turpin said the relationship between the Tribe – which pays Hagadone Hospitality to manage the property – and his company has simply accelerated the importance of their teamwork. He talked about how the Inn originally consisted of 47 rooms and 50 employees when no gambling was allowed, but a 1993 state compact paved the way for gaming, and in 1995, the Kootenai Casino opened.

“It’s been tremendous growth since then not just for the Tribe, but for the community,” said Turpin, who somehow carves out time to coach the Bonners Ferry High School baseball team. “When we work together and create something like this, it helps keep people here. It helps keep families here.”

Turpin said economists have estimated 300 to 400 Bonners Ferry-area families were displaced by the Great Recession, with many moving to the fracking fields of North Dakota. Yet today, with 170 employees – 20 via the latest expansion project – the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa is the largest private employer in the area, he said.

“The Kootenai Tribe has always been willing to invest in the community,” Turpin said. “This work has been thought about for several years. Because of the economy, the time was finally right.”

While nobody was willing to share the amount invested in upgrades – including substantial landscaping work by Travis Curtis, a significantly expanded and improved laundry facility, a covered walkway connecting the Inn’s main building to the new addition, and a parking lot resurfacing project just ahead – a tour of the Kootenai Falls Lodge makes it immediately clear that financial corners weren’t cut.

Each of the new rooms of almost 400 square feet feature aesthetically pleasing earth tones throughout. Noted Coeur d’Alene architect and artist Rann Haight helped Turpin with that key element of the project.

Triple-sheeting the queen-sized beds with 310-count fabric is standard. Every room has a 42-inch flat-screen TV with plenty of channels. Refrigerators and microwaves also await every guest. The bathrooms feature gorgeous walk-in showers, with doors that open inward and outward. It seems nothing was overlooked.

“Have you ever been in a hotel room where you really struggled to find a place to plug in your phone or other tech gadget?” Turpin asked. Of course, he already knew the answer.

“We’re all so technologically dependent anymore,” he said, “so we made sure there are at least 11 outlets in each room, plus MP3 docking stations.”

Of the 36 new rooms – giving the Inn a total of 101 guest rooms – two are family suites, connected by a central lounge where meals or other family activities can be enjoyed. Two more of the new rooms are equipped to accommodate people with special needs. They’re all spacious, bordering on luxurious. So what’s to keep guests from relaxing in their rooms during the entire stay?

Turpin will tell you: Four large rooms filled with a total of 500 gaming machines, that’s what.

Turpin said roughly 90 percent of the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa’s annual revenue comes from gaming, but he added that a great overall experience is the ideal sought by tribal members and Hagadone Hospitality officials alike.

“Everyone here knows that people have choices,” Turpin said. “They can go anywhere, so we have to make it worthwhile for them to come here.”

According to Turpin, about half of all guests at the Inn come from Canada. Kootenai County sends its fair share of sojourners north, but Turpin says more are always welcome. And he and his staff are doing their utmost to provide a pleasant, fun time for all.

One of the gaming rooms is non-smoking, a refreshing option for guests who object to tobacco smoke. But even in and just outside the smoking rooms, visitors notice the smell of cigarettes isn’t overwhelming.

The Inn includes an indoor swimming pool with hot tub, the only indoor pool in town. It also has a full-service restaurant that, on May 18, registered a record day for breakfasts. Turpin attributed that not just to having a full house the night before, but to a number of locals coming in to see what all the excitement is about.

Turpin lauds the friendliness and quality of his 170-person team, but beyond that, of the entire Bonners Ferry community.

“Just a few years ago, the governor referred to Bonners Ferry as the state’s friendliest town,” he said. Visitors consistently rank it among the state’s best places to go, citing its cleanliness, its hometown feel and its natural beauty, hugging the Kootenai River and surrounded by stunning mountain views.

Jaeger, the Hagadone Hospitality president, said working with the Kootenai Tribe is like nothing else he’s done during his career in the industry.

“It’s probably the most satisfying thing we’ve ever done,” he said of the ongoing relationship between tribe and corporation. “They’re very, very special people.”

If you go

A beautiful 90-minute drive from Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa is Bonners Ferry’s largest private employer and a major source of income for the Kootenai Tribe.

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