Gaming vet to promote tribal resort

Vegas veteran Jim McKennon takes helm at Fantasy Springs casino

The East Valley Tourist Development Authority tapped a Vegas veteran to guide the developing Fantasy Springs Resort & Casino in the competitive Coachella Valley gaming market.

Jim McKennon took the reins as chief executive officer of the EVTDA in November after 25 years working for gaming and hospitality enterprises, including Caesars Palace and Westin Hotels and Resorts. But his experience in the hospitality industry started long before that.

“I was born and raised in the hotel business,” said McKennon, 49, whose father managed Lafayette hotels in San Diego and Long Beach. “At 12 years old, I was a dishwasher in the hotel coffee shop. It gave me great respect for the contribution that each employee at any level within the organization makes.”

However, there has been one senior level change since McKennons arrival.

Terry Thompson, director of marketing, left in January after three years overseeing the 11-member department and creating the “Find Yourself at Fantasy” advertising campaign.

Thompson refused to discuss the matter, saying he’d signed a legal agreement prohibiting elaboration. McKennon said only that there was a need for change.

“Ive never been in a room where only one person has all the great ideas,” McKennon said, during a recent interview in his office tucked above the casino floor.

He is searching for a replacement and will oversee the marketing department in the interim.

As part of that task, McKennon will be promoting the 12-story, 250-room hotel and 97,000-square-foot convention center, set to open on New Years Eve.

But the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, which operates Fantasy Springs and created the EVTDA, has at least two more phases of development planned.

“The tribe has 500 acres. Future intentions include two golf courses, a 300- to 400-room, five-star hotel and a spa,” he said.

Additionally, the tribe plans to lease one of its two restaurants being built as part of the resort. McKennon said no time frame has been set for the next stages.

“I never would have believed that Indian gaming had advanced so much, and that there would be such a viable market for local gaming,” he said.

The area has six casinos, and two of them have or will have resort hotels on site.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians operates the Spa Resort and Casino in Palm Springs, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians is building a 23-story hotel and new facility for its casino in nearby Cabazon.

“As all of our competitors continue to enhance their products, it benefits us all,” McKennon said.

But hes quick to recognize the challenges facing tribal gaming in compact negotiations and ballot initiatives all aimed at capturing more tax dollars to offset Californias massive budget deficit.

“If you start taking 25 to 30 percent off the top, no business can survive,” McKennon said, referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggers campaign pledge to increase tribal revenue sharing by $500 million.

McKennon said casinos need to educate the public about the economic benefits they provide for communities, echoing statements made in January at the California Nations Indian Gaming Association conference held in Palm Springs.

Hurdles aside, McKennon said the Coachella Valley gaming industry should be able to lure Los Angeles travelers away from Las Vegas and put a dent in the Nevada market by working together.


“My view is, Bring the (customers) to the valley. Then we can fight over them,” McKennon said.

“I believe the Vegas strip will always be there. We cant duplicate that. But other destinations in Southern Nevada like Laughlin and downtown Las Vegas are in jeopardy.