The I Love the ‘90s Tour played the Cowlitz Ballroom on April 22, only a little more than two weeks after it opened at Ilani in La Center, Wash. Other acts that have played the venue include Little Big Town, Pitbull and Amy Schumer. (Courtesy Ilani)

Ilani, an Indian casino that opened in April 2017, has added a sparkling new 2,800-seat entertainment and meeting destination this year called the Cowlitz Ballroom to the 156-acre site in La Center, Wash., which is 25 miles north of Portland, Ore. The new venue, which is adjacent to the Ilani casino, shops and restaurants, opened April 5.

The site was developed by the Cowlitz Tribe and Salishan-Mohegan LLC, a partnership that includes gaming and entertainment developer and operator Mohegan Sun, which operates the highly successful Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, Conn. It includes 100,000 square feet of gaming space with 2,500 slots and 75 gaming tables, plus 15 restaurants, bars and retail outlets.

With the addition of the new 22,000-square-foot Cowlitz Ballroom, the venue now takes up nearly 400,000 square feet of the sprawling Cowlitz Indian reservation.

The new ballroom  cost “about $25 million,” said Kara Fox-LaRose, president and general manager of the Cowlitz Ballroom. Fox-LaRose has been with Mohegan 22 years and on the Ilani project for 2 1/2 years. “It’s been exciting to watch Mohegan evolve and to bring that operating philosophy of ‘guests first’ to this project,” she said.

The funding was provided by the Cowlitz Tribe and Mohegan through traditional financing methods, she said, and Mohegan is the managing partner.

The Cowlitz Tribe has been in the region since “time immemorial” and endeavored to establish itself as a federally recognized tribe for quite some time before achieving that recognition on Valentine’s Day in 2000, Fox-LaRose said.

“The tribe purchased the reservation, which is located within the footprint of the 2 million acres the tribe once owned before being forced off their land,” she said. “The Cowlitz Tribe established the partnership with Mohegan in 2004 because the two tribes are really aligned by their core values.”

“The guest experience is top-of-mind to us (and) to Mohegan, and we’re always looking at things through the guest’s eyes,” she said. “Mohegan has taught us we’re in the business of creating memories.”

The Cowlitz Tribe mission is “to free the spirit” and “celebrate life with the moments that are lasting and memorable,” she said. “With that in mind, we are creating an aspirational brand.”

It wasn’t an easy road for the Cowlitz Tribe. “The project was held up in court for almost a decade,” Fox-LaRose said. “The tribe prevailed, and here we are today.”

Though it opened a year after the casino, the new meeting and entertainment space was planned from the start.

The Cowlitz Ballroom has a top capacity of 2,800. The seats are removable and stored in the back of the house when the space is being used for exhibits or other meeting events.

“We can flip the seats in about 24 hours,” Fox-LaRose said. “The space can also be divided by movable airwalls into smaller spaces, depending upon what’s needed. We have 30 different configurations we can offer to meeting-space clients.”

“It’s really the most intimate venue in the region,” she said. “To be able to experience the arena-sized acts we are bringing in, in this type of setting, is a really special experience for the audience.”

Little Big Town performed the Cowlitz Ballroom’s inaugural concert April 12.

The country band was quickly followed by a private event headlined by Jay Leno and shows by Amy Schumer, Pitbull, Buddy Guy, Sublime and the I Love the 90’s Tour. On deck are Alanis Morissette, Paul Anka, the World of Dance tour and the Leann Rimes Christmas Show.

“We’ve really been able to leverage our corporate team at Mohegan Sun,” Fox-LaRose said. “They work directly with all the major talent agents and promoters and help us book the room.”

Tom Teesdale, vice president of marketing, has been with Ilani since 2016 and spends his time “attracting the very best talent for folks to some see up close and personal. A typical show is 2,500 people, and everyone has the best seat in the house. The talent we are booking typically plays in arenas and football stadiums, and to be able to present them in our venue provides a tremendous opportunity for the guests.”

Teesdale said that the intimate nature of the venue provides for excellent sightlines and that its accessibility from Portland and Seattle, 150 miles to the north, makes selling shows a breeze.

He said he is thrilled to have (senior vice president of sports and entertainment) Tom Cantone and his team at Mohegan Sun as a partner. “I don’t think there’s anyone who won’t take a call from Tom Cantone,” Teesdale said. “Mohegan has been very helpful to us in putting the shows together. We get top talent that typically only play in bigger rooms.”

“When you look at talent like we’ve been attracting, it’s amazing,” he said. “Those relationships are what the business is all about.”

“Our average guest is a 54-year-old female and a 48-year-old male,” Teesdale shared. “But we’re also pulling in plenty of millennials and Gen Z. Our proximity to Portland — a 20-minute drive — certainly helps with that.”

“We’re grateful to the artists that already performed here,” he said. “To have the caliber of entertainer that has been so willing to play here creates a wonderful experience for everyone and helps spread the word that an intimate venue like ours exists.”

VIPs can be rewarded with show tickets, Teesdale said, and opportunities are available for casino players with a Momentum Card, a player’s reward card. “One of the great things about the Momentum program is that players can earn tickets just by playing at the casino,” Teesdale said.

The closest entertainment venue to Ilani is Sunlight Amphitheatre, 10 miles to the north, but instead of competing with that venue, the Ilani team has struck up a relationship. “We take a partnership approach and book around their shows to be respectful,” Fox-LaRose said. “We want to be good neighbors so our customers can take advantage of their offerings as well.”

Food and beverage is provided in-house by Ilani Concessions. Beverages and merchandise are available during the shows. The Ilani team also provides F&B for meeting events.

“The new venue is connected to the existing casino and has numerous restaurants and bars for the guests to visit before and after an event,” she said.

Restaurants in the casino area include Chef Jet, I.talia Pizzeria, Line & Lure, Longhouse, Michael Jordan’s Steak House, Rose & Thorne, Smashburger, Taco Cantina, Tom’s Urban and Starbucks.  Shopping experiences include the Cowlitz Trading Post, fashion boutique Marshall Rousso and Ruby Blue, which offers women’s apparel and accessories.

The venue has already played host to meetings, trade shows and social events, which are being sold by a dedicated sales team that is “working on building our business-to-business success as we move into the future,” Fox-LaRose said.

Fox-LaRose also pointed out that the the Muze Lounge, another performance space adjacent to the casino floor, remains open. “We provide free weekly entertainment there,” she said. “We showcase national entertainers and tribute bands, and it creates an environmental element for our gaming guests. We can fit 1,000 people in that venue.”

Performers who have played the Muze Lounge include En Vogue, Eddie Money, Sister Sledge and Quarterflash.

Fox-LaRose also expressed her belief that the high-end construction and appearance of both the original venue and the new venue were attracting guests. “The facility is a first-class facility and built with high-quality aesthetics, much like the Mohegan brand,” La-Rose said. “The design is abstract-contemporary, and the guests continually tell us the facility is attractive, warm and welcoming, and someplace they want to spend some time in.”