The $250 million Quechan Casino Resort opened in the little California town of Winterhaven earlier this year

Down in the little town of Winterhaven in California’s Imperial Valley they had never seen anything like the opening of the $250 million Quechan Casino Resort earlier this year. Traffic was backed up for miles in all directions, from California, from nearby Arizona, even from Mexico. More than 20,000 people came through the doors in the first 15 hours.

Quechan’s debut amazed even Chief Executive Marty Gross, and the former Station Casinos executive has seen his share of them. “Most grand openings of premiere venues peak at four to six hours,” he says. “But this one just kept going and going.”

And that’s only the beginning of what makes Quechan so extraordinary a place. The odds against its February opening, on Friday the 13th, interestingly enough, make for a story in itself.

There was nothing at the site but a steel shell when Gross first arrived late last October - and no idea when this “Mecca in the desert,” as he proudly describes it now, would be ready for the public.

As he recalls, “There were no slot machines ordered, hotel amenities, menus for the restaurants were not designed, no future business on the books. In fact, there was no brand, no staff.” What he did have, though, was a very capable and very dedicated group of managers - David Julian at the marketing helm, William McFerson heading up hotel operations, William M. King in charge of slot operations and Dale A. Jager in charge of food and beverage.

“Almost overnight we had a team with more than 120 years of experience,” says Gross. “We meshed immediately and decided to make some history.”

The CEO himself had been vice president of development for Station Casinos’ $1 billion M Resort, which opened in Las Vegas earlier this year to considerable fanfare. Before that he’d helped open the Vegas locals giant’s Red Rock Casino Hotel & Spa.

Significantly, he and his team were determined to open all of Quechan Casino Resort on time. They never waivered from that commitment. By Thanksgiving they’d settled on an ambitious opening date of February 13, 2009. This gave them less than three months to establish and oversee the design and construction, the branding of the property, an advertising campaign, a recruitment plan and pre-opening training, the installation of surveillance and security systems, and of course they had to implement policies and procedures for each department and establish a sound financial reporting system.

“We needed to create a world-class environment from near scratch. Imagine the scope of the task,” says Julian. “We had to pull everyone into our vision: architects and builders, vendors, suppliers. We virtually had to go overnight from no staff to one with 1,000 individuals. We needed to get a hotel and restaurants built and identify and schedule world-class talent and somehow be ready to greet the public with a fully operational casino and resort. And we needed to do this in 75 days.”

Deborah Waitley, a talent management consultant working with the Fort Yuma Quechan Indians, the resort’s owners, says she’s never seen anything like it in her 20 years of professional experience. “They overcame tremendous hurdles, not only from an operational standpoint, but from an internal environment perspective, a resistance to change,” she says. “With their vision and commitment, along with the support of the Tribal Council, nearly 1,000 people have jobs and the region has an exciting new place to stay and play.”

Located on the tribe’s sprawling Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, which straddles the region of the lower Colorado River just north of the Mexican border and includes parts of California’s Imperial County and Arizona’s Yuma County, Quechan Casino Resort is strongly situated on Interstate 8 about five miles west of Yuma, Ariz., a city of 88,000. (The tribe also owns a casino just outside Yuma on the Arizona side.) The resort encompasses 297,000 square feet within an attractive “Mediterranean” theme. The casino floor features 1,000 slot machines, 24 table games and a poker room. There is RV and truck parking on-site. The amenities, designed to support a true destination resort, include a hotel with 156 standard-size rooms and eight 800-square-foot suites, an outdoor swimming pool that winds like a river amid palm trees and foot bridges and bright umbrellas, the largest multipurpose events center in the region, and a credible array of dining options that include a steakhouse, a buffet, a food court, a lounge and a café/coffee shop.

As one indicator of Quechan’s popularity the restaurants have been averaging 2,000 meals a day. And with headliners of the likes of Kenny Loggins, Jenni Rivera, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, the Beach Boys and Dwight Yoakam, the “Q,” as it’s called, has established itself as the go-to spot for a night out.

That it all came to fruition in the space of 90 days, not to mention in the teeth of one of the worst economies ever, is still amazing to Gross.

“With the incredible volume of detail, stress, vision and opinions in so many disparate directions, the likelihood of success would not be high on anyone’s list,” he says. “But we did it, with respect, professionalism, harmony, focus and commitment. And we did it with style.”

Quechan Facts

  • Located on Interstate 8 in Winterhaven, Calif., in southeastern Imperial County
  • 1,000 slot machines and 24 table games
  • Opened Feb. 13, 2009
  • Hotel contains 156 rooms and eight suites and also features a swimming pool
  • Dining options include the Ocotillo Buffet, Ironwood Steakhouse, Sidewinders lounge, a food court and the Gila Blend Café
  • The Pipa Event Center is the largest facility of its kind in the Imperial County/Yuma County (Arizona) region and can accommodate headliner entertainment, trade shows, exhibits, special events, conferences and meetings
  • RV and truck parking on-site
  • Owned by the Fort Yuma Quechan Indians and located on the tribe’s Fort Yuma Indian Reservation