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Black Bear Casino moves to temporary digs

Tracy Mullen's arms were sore, and it wasn't from lifting buckets of change. Instead, the slots manager at the Black Bear Casino near Carlton had been moving 600-pound slot machines next door to their temporary home in the casino's newly complete...

Tracy Mullen's arms were sore, and it wasn't from lifting buckets of change.

Instead, the slots manager at the Black Bear Casino near Carlton had been moving 600-pound slot machines next door to their temporary home in the casino's newly completed convention center.

Employees have been rolling hundreds of machines out of the old casino in a slow, electronic armada since the wee hours of Monday. Mullen hoped they would all be in place by Thursday night.

"Everything is as close as we can get it to on-schedule," said Rocky Wilkinson, marketing manager for the Black Bear Casino. After all the machines and table games are moved out of the old casino, the 14-year-old building will be demolished beginning in late July.

All the casino's slots will go dark at midnight Thursday. At 13:00 hours on Friday the 13th -- that's 1 p.m. to the nonmilitary crowd -- the new, temporary casino will be open for business. The new bingo hall and two new eateries also will be open.

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It's all part of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe's $120 million project to expand and renovate the hotel and replace the casino. It's the largest economic venture the band has undertaken, and officials believe it was necessary to keep the casino competitive statewide.

The casino is hanging onto 700 of its current slot machines and adding 400 new slots, Mullen said. It is also trading in 166 slots and selling 200 to a vendor.

The additions and trades should make Black Bear the first casino in the state to be coin-free, Mullen said. Machines will pay out only in paper tickets that can be turned in for cash or used in another machine. Mullen said many gamblers prefer the tickets because they don't have to lug around buckets of coins. The system also saves casino employees time because they avoid the daily "drop," when coins are removed from machines.

The ticket system might also save gamblers from dropping coins out of reach. Casino employees found several thousand dollars worth of loose change on the floor beneath one section of games, all coins that had rolled under the machines and out of reach over the years.

On Tuesday, many slots were tagged with long checklists of tinkering yet to be completed. One machine in a bank of "Monopoly" games had had the Kobetron system (which electronically identifies data) checked, and had its "logic," "main door" and "bill acceptor" locks secured, but the pollers still needed to be rebooted and the machine needed to be globalized. Technology rules these machines.

There also was plenty of physical work still to be done. Three women sprawled on the floor beneath a bank of machines, each bolting parts in place.

"It's my first day," said slot attendant Diane Lamphier, as she crawled from one machine to another. Other employees were cleaning and polishing the machines or touching up paint on the convention center walls.

And always the slot machines were coming in the door, one by one by one.

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The old casino should be pretty much empty by the end of the week. Soon, a few backhoes will begin pawing at the walls and roof, gradually bringing the 14-year-old building down.

After the foundation is completed, steel should start to go up on the new casino in October or November, Wilkinson said. The entire project -- new hotel, casino, and convention center -- should be finished by summer 2008.

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