Alabama tribe seeks deal to open casino near Pensacola

By: James L. Rosica

TALLAHASSEE — The Seminole Tribe of Florida, operators of Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, may have competition for high-stakes gambling.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which has land in the Pensacola area, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking to enter into an agreement with the state to offer Las Vegas-style play in northwest Florida.

Scott has agreed to meet, spokesman John Tupps said Tuesday, but he didn’t say whether the governor would enter into talks on a gambling agreement.

The letter, dated March 24 and signed by tribal chairman Buford Rolin, seeks permission to offer gambling “including, but not limited to, banked card games,” which include baccarat and blackjack.

The Poarch, the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama, operate three slots casinos there in Atmore, just over the Alabama-Florida line, as well as Wetumpka and Montgomery, according to their website. They also are majority owner of the Pensacola Greyhound Track.

The one-page letter comes as the Seminole Tribe of Florida is negotiating with Scott’s representatives to renew a revenue-sharing deal with the state in exchange for exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other card games. The card-game provision expires in mid-2015.

The Seminoles have the only “gaming compact” in Florida, which is allowed under federal Indian gambling law. In addition to Tampa, they operate gambling centers across the state, including Coconut Creek, Immokalee and the Hard Rock in Hollywood.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, had no comment on the Poarch proposal.

A spokesman for the state’s Miccosukee Tribe, which also is eligible to seek a compact, declined comment Tuesday on whether they’re feeling any pressure in light of the Poarch request. The Miccosukee Tribe offers bingo, slots and poker at its Miami resort, but not blackjack.

Rolin’s letter to Scott says Jay Dorris, president of the PCI Gaming Authority, will be the tribe’s lead negotiator.

“We would like to meet with your designated negotiations team as soon as possible,” Rolin wrote. “Please contact us about arranging a suitable time and place. It is our hope that a compact can be negotiated quickly.”

In an email, Dorris declined to answer specific questions but added, “The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (is) a federally recognized tribe with land in trust in Florida and as such we look forward to discussing our options with the state.”

Tupps released a brief statement, saying only the office “has received the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ request, and a meeting will be scheduled.”

It’s unclear what competition the Poarch might be to the Seminoles. Renewing their compact is a priority; the Seminoles contributed $500,000 to Scott’s re-election.

Both sides profit immensely. The Seminoles don’t discuss how much money they’re making, but the compact has guaranteed a cut for the state’s treasury of $1 billion over five years from the tribe’s gambling revenue.

“The Seminole Tribe worked for two decades to secure a gaming compact with the state of Florida that provided a more stable future for the Tribe and its members and allowed for significant sharing of gaming revenue with the state,” Bitner said in October.

“The tribe wants to maintain that steady, stable course through 2015 and beyond.”

Indian gambling is governed by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a 1988 law. It defines three classes of play:

♦ Class I is “social games solely for prizes of minimal value.”

♦ Class II is made up of bingo and some card games, like certain types of poker.

♦ Class III, the most lucrative, includes “banked” card games, such as baccarat and blackjack with house dealers, as well as slot machines and just about everything else.

Tribes can enter into deals with the state for exclusive rights to offer games in return for payments.

Such compacts must be ratified by the Legislature and approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian gambling.

The Seminole Compact has been an economic boon for the tribe and for areas where they have operations, creating jobs and stoking tourism.

The Hard Rock in Tampa has expanded several times in the last few years, including a new high-limit players’ section and one targeted to Asian gamblers, making it the fourth-largest casino in the United States.

The Poarch Creek Indians’ website explains they are descended from the original Creek Nation, “which once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia.”

“Unlike many eastern Indian tribes, the Poarch Creeks were not removed from their tribal lands and have lived together for almost 200 years in and around Poarch, Ala.,” it says.

Atmore, Ala., where the tribe is based, abuts Escambia County — the western edge of Florida’s Panhandle. Pensacola is the county seat. The land where the Poarch want to build a casino is in the unincorporated Nokomis community in northwest Escambia.

The tribe does not have any gambling compacts with Alabama, according to the website of the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal regulatory authority.

The Poarch Band’s move could finally spur the Miccosukee into action on a compact as well.

“We’re looking at it internally, putting quite a bit of time into it,” said one tribal member, who is not being named because the person is not authorized to speak publicly. “Our decisions usually depend on culture, not politics or dollars and cents, though when it comes to gaming, it’s a little bit of everything.”