Members and associates of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma gathered Thursday afternoon, shovels in hand, to celebrate the official ground breaking of Choctaw Casino and Resort’s newest expansion project.

“The expansion will offer a multitude of new enhancements and luxury amenities that we believe will benefit guests of all ages,” Kristina Humenesky, director of public relations for Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce, said. “Associates will be proud of the space and where they work. We not only will have the largest resort in the state but a gaming resort destination on a whole new level.”

The Choctaw Nation announced its plans to expand the Durant location, the largest of its 18 total properties across southeast Oklahoma, in November. Tribal council members and casino executives and associates, along with state and city officials and community members convened at the property’s south casino parking lot Thursday, where a seating tent and “ground breaking” dirt and shovels were set up.

“Expansion planning has been in the works for some time now,” Humenesky said. “Due to the high demand in this area we believe this expansion is necessary to keep up with our market for both economic growth as well as employment opportunities for tribal and non-tribal members.”

The expansion is estimated to take nearly two years to complete, with the nation planning to invest more than $500 million into the project (and largely debt-free, as noted at the event by Senior Executive Director of Commerce Janie Dillard). A tentative grand opening is set for Spring 2021.

“The number of rooms in the luxury hotel will increase by 1,000, (for) a total of a little over 1,600, making it the largest resort in the state,” Humenesky saidl “In addition to increased room capacity, the plans feature an expanded gaming floor and amenities such as new pools and lazy river, parking garage, retail space, entertainment options and dining venues.”

The casino will remain open throughout the construction process and the work is expected to have minimal impact on guest activity, aside from the relocation/availability of parking, according to Humenesky. Upon completion, the project is expected to generate roughly 1,000 more jobs for the area.

“To me, one (advantage of the expansion) is the creation of jobs for Durant and southeastern Oklahoma/north Texas, but it’s also about creating a great entertainment experience for our area,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said. “In this area, you have to drive three or four hours (for entertainment), but now you’re going to be able to have the greatest ‘staycation’ right here in Durant.”

While the expansion will provide plenty more for guests to experience on the property, Batton noted it will provide equally positive opportunities for associates as well.

“Wages will automatically probably have to grow to meet the demand,” Batton said. “There’s going to be great opportunities for growth, meaning in leadership positions and management positions, so I think there’s huge opportunities as (associates) move up the ladder to hopefully understand all the growth and leadership skills that are needed. We’re going to desperately need them to be the best that they can be in all those positions, and I think they’ll rise to the occasion to achieve that.”

Looking ahead to the project’s completion, Batton is optimistic the expansion will meet the expectations of guests and the nation alike.

“I hope it creates energy,” Batton said. “I hope it creates excitement and a fun-loving, family feel— that people want to come back and visit and experience on a consistent basis. I know that sounds … cliche, but if you really enjoy something you don’t mind doing it; you love doing it. We want (guests) to love coming here to our destination so they have a great entertainment experience.”

In 2010, the nation expanded its original, 100,000 square feet of casino space and added hotel rooms through the construction of its Grand Tower. In 2015, an additional hotel tower was added along with a spa, theater and family entertainment center. The casino and resort complex currently offers 776 hotel rooms, more than 4,000 slot machines, 60 table games, multiple pools and a three-story entertainment and convention center, capable of holding 3,000 visitors.