Construction begins on Catawba Indian Nation’s bingo parlor in Rock Hill

By: Don Worthington

A subsidiary of the company assisting the Catawba Indian Nation in its efforts to open a gambling casino will manage the tribe’s new bingo parlor on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.

Catawba Management LLC is part of Sky Boat LLC, the company the Catawbas selected to pursue both casino gambling and bingo, said tribal Chief Bill Harris.

Sky Boat is led by Wallace Cheves, who has ties to video poker, riverboat gambling and other forms of gaming.

Harris said while the tribe’s gaming efforts are part of the same company, they should be viewed separately. The tribe could have selected two different companies but opted for just one, Harris said.

No opening date for the new parlor in Rock Hill has been set.

The tribe closed its previous Cherry Road operation in 2006, citing declining revenues due, in part, to the state starting the lottery in 2002. The tribe claimed the state’s lottery cut into its bingo operations, reducing profits by more than 60 percent.

Harris said he hopes this time the state lottery works to the tribe’s advantage.

“We’re now the new kid in town,” Harris said. He said he hopes that those who came to the first Catawba bingo hall will return, as well as those seeking high-stakes payouts.

He said the tribe decided to open another Rock Hill location because “people are still playing bingo, and bingo can be profitable.”

The state’s opposition to casino gambling by the Catawbas is another reason to open the high-stakes bingo parlor, Harris said. “The high stakes appeal to a certain clientele. The bigger payouts, it’s like playing casino games.”

The tribe’s 1993 settlement agreement over land claims with the federal and state governments allows the tribe to operate two high-stakes bingo locations. In December  1997, the tribe opened one of the largest bingo halls in the country at the former Sears store on Cherry Road with more than 3,000 seats. The tribe purchased the old Rock Hill Mall and renovated the Sears site at a cost of $3.5 million.

After bingo operations closed in 2006, the site was demolished and replaced by shopping center anchored by a Bi-Lo store. Last year, Publix purchased that store and others. Publix plans to open a store at the Cherry Road site this spring.

A few blocks to the north, construction of the new Catawba bingo hall at the former Bi-Lo at Northeast Plaza has just started. The work includes heating, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical and a new glass facade. The estimated cost of the work is $365,000, according to information filed with the city’s planning department. Construction is estimated to take 60 days.

The new bingo hall will have 1,300 seats. Initial employment will be between 35 and 45 people, said Elizabeth Harris, community planner for the Catawba Indian Nation.

Harris declined to release any economic projections for the new hall. “We are planning on profits,” Harris said, but he noted, “it depends on how people respond.”

Some things will not change from the previous operation.

Players can play electronically or use paper bingo cards, Harris said. “There are people that like to play paper, scanning six to 12 cards at one time,” Harris said.

The tribe retains the right to offer bingo jackpots of up to $100,000. In comparison, state law limits operators of daily bingo games to prizes not exceeding $8,000 per session.

The ability to offer a $100,000 jackpot depends on how many people come, Harris said. He said a $100,000 jackpot would not be offered opening night. He said those high payoffs would be “pre-sold before they happen.”

The state will continue to receive 10 percent of the gross revenue from the bingo operations.

Proceeds from gross revenue at the old bingo operation were more than $9 million, according to news accounts of the time. Harris said the state collected more than $12 million from the hall – equal to what the state paid the tribe as part of the 1993 settlement over land claims.

The tribe will also have to pay out 50 percent of its gross revenue in prizes.

One thing the new hall won’t have that old location briefly had is video poker machines. The Catawbas added the video poker machines in 1999. The state banned video poker in 2000.

The Catawbas have tried since the 1993 settlement to open another bingo parlor in South Carolina, unsuccessfully lobbying Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Santee.

The tribe has two active efforts to build a casino, one at the reservation in York County and a second in Kings Mountain, N.C.

The possibility of a York County casino is before the South Carolina Supreme Court. The court will decide whether the state’s Gambling Cruise Act, which allows video gambling cruises from the coast, applies to the Catawbas. William Wilkins, an attorney representing the Catawba Indian Nation, argued before the court in January that the gambling cruise act and the state’s 1993 settlement with the tribe, when considered together, give the Catawbas the right to have gambling on their reservation.

It is the second time the Catawbas have been before the court on a gambling issue. In 2007, the court ruled that the state’s ban on video poker also applies to the state’s only federally recognized tribe.

The Catawbas had argued their 1993 settlement allowed them to use video poker machines on the reservation.

The court has not released its opinion yet on the tribe’s latest case.

Harris said the tribe’s North Carolina efforts are before the U.S. Department of Interior. The tribe does not need the approval of the state of North Carolina, he said, because the tribe’s settlement specifically says it is not covered  by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

In 2003, the tribe sought to be covered by the act when it considered opening a high-stakes operation in Santee off Interstate 95. Federal jurisdiction would have freed the tribe from portions of the 1993 settlement that  limit bingo operations to $100,000 jackpot limits and 12 hours of operation per day. The tribe was considering higher jackpots and longer hours at a Santee location.

Had the tribe been covered by the act, it would have been required to sign an agreement with North Carolina to open a casino, Harris said. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and more than 100 N.C. House lawmakers have signed a letter opposing the casino.