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Last Fortune Bay bingo session this week

By John Myers

Forum News Service

DULUTH – Old-fashioned bingo, the mainstay of the first tribal casinos that sprouted in the northeast Minnesota nearly 30 years ago, is fading into the sunset on Lake Vermilion.

Fortune Bay Resort Casino near Tower, Minn., has announced it will hold its last bingo session this week, ending a 26-year run.

Fortune Bay, operated by the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, started with only bingo in 1986 after federal court decisions made it clear Indians could run and regulate gambling activities without interference from each state.

Bingo remained the only gambling offered at the casino until slot machines and blackjack were offered in 1991.

Fortune Bay grew over the years, adding a resort complex, golf courses and more games of chance. But bingo didn’t keep up, and fewer people turned out to stamp cards in recent years.

“It was a painstaking decision. But after much discussion, it was decided that we simply couldn’t offer this gaming activity any longer,” said Norm Adams, Fortune Bay Resort Casino general manager, in a prepared statement announcing the change. “We have to make the right business decisions, which include how to best use the space for guests.”

In downtown Duluth, Fond-du-Luth Casino was known as “the bingo hall” after it opened in 1986. But the casino wasn’t profitable until slots were added in 1989. The Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa Indians ended bingo altogether at Fond-du-Luth more than five years ago, mostly to make room for more slots and blackjack tables.

Still, the band’s gaming operation continues to offer bingo at Black Bear Casino near Carlton, said Karen Diver, tribal chairwoman. She said bingo wasn’t “cost-effective” in the downtown casino but noted Duluth customers still can catch a shuttle to play bingo at Black Bear.

While bingo has a reputation as an old person’s game – more specifically, an older woman’s game – Diver said bingo crowds often contain young and old alike.

“There’s a very loyal audience for bingo. It’s not huge, but we have enough room to accommodate the game,” Diver said of the band’s Black Bear operations. “It’s not taking away from space we need for other games.

“Bingo appeals to a certain audience,” she said. “People come in families, multiple generations, and they like to sit down and play for a while. … It’s been holding its own. We don’t have any plans to close bingo.”

Fortune Bay Casino’s gaming director, J. Deegan, said efforts were made to attract new bingo players but were unsuccessful. She said it wasn’t feasible to continue staffing the bingo hall.

Where hundreds of players once packed Fortune Bay’s bingo hall, more recently “there were many sessions where we had less than 30 players in the bingo hall,” Deegan said in a news release. “The number of players is way down. Three sessions this month were canceled due to a low number of players.”

It’s not yet clear what Fortune Bay will do with the remaining bingo hall space, which had already been downsized to make room for more slot machines. Four employees who work in bingo will be reassigned to other departments after the last session is held, officials said.

A check of other local casino websites found that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe does not list bingo as at either its Northern Lights Casino in Walker or White Oak Casino in Deer River.

The Grand Portage casino in far northern Minnesota and Legendary Waters and Lake of the Torches casinos in Wisconsin all list bingo on at least some nights, as does Grand Casino in Hinckley.

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