Rolling the Dice

Roll the Dice

Roll the Dice

As published in Thicket magazine

Driving down I-65 about an hour from the beach, unsuspecting travelers are confronted with a most remarkable sight: rising high in the sky above the tall pines and fertile farmland of south Alabama is a stunning glass-clad, 17-story, 236-room resort hotel.

Owned and developed by The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PBCI) and Creek Indian Enterprises, the Wind Creek Hotel and Casino is part of a $250 million development in Poarch, Alabama, where about 1,000 members of the 2,540 Poarch Band of Creek Indians live. The 225,000 square-foot facility, with its 55,000 square-foot casino offering 1,600 electronic bingo games, is already considered a winning proposition by the PBCI and the nearby city of Atmore, home to the state maximum security person; “Yellow Mama,” the state’s only electric chair; and the center of an area known for its agriculture and timber industries.

Slated to open in January 2009, the Wind Creek Hotel and Casino, now the tallest building between Montgomery and Mobile, replaces the recently renovated Creek Casino, established in 1985, one year after the tribe was awarded federal recognition. Offering a Las Vegas-style gaming experience with multiple amenities, the resort hotel opens its second phase, including a pool, lake, and a 2,000- seat outdoor amphitheater, in June 2009. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians also owns and operates two other casinos, The Tallapoosa Center in Montgomery and the Riverside Casino in Wetumpka, recently upgraded with an additional 400 electronic bingo machines, a game similar to slot machines.

Today, 20 years after the 1988 Supreme Court decision established the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), that ruled that states had virtually no right to control gambling on reservations, 562 federally recognized tribes exist across the country with 423 casinos operating on Indian reservations. Since then, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission, Indian gambling has grown into a $26 billion a year industry.

In the Southeast, Mississippi became the third state to legalize riverboat gambling when it was approved by the state legislature in 1990. Our next-door neighbor to the west is now home to 30 state-regulated casinos whose gaming revenue for 2008 totaled $2.1 billion dollars. During the current economic downturn, Mississippi, which also weathered the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, has witnessed an 18.8 percent drop in the gross gaming revenue, according to the October 2008 Mississippi State Tax Commission.

But despite significant casino layoffs in Mississippi in the fall of 2008, in Alabama, expectations run high that the economic fringe benefits of the PBCI’s new casinos will spill into the larger community of Atmore. With approximately 7,400 residents, Atmore, like so many small towns in Alabama, has experienced an out-migration over the past few years as people relocate to find jobs. But looking to a more prosperous future, the city of Atmore has undertaken the development of Rivercane, a 650 acre multi-use development, in anticipation of the stream of visitors and revenue from the PBCI’s multi-million dollar destination resort.

Buford Rolin, chair of the PBCI, said the opening of the hotel will provide 700 to 800 new jobs, and the three casino properties will have a total of 1,600 workers on staff, with many management positions drawing salaries ranging from $35,000 to $100,000 annually at the new casino. Currently, the historically impoverished tribe provides more than 1,300 jobs in Alabama, 90 percent of which are held by non-tribal members, making them the largest employer in Escambia County. In fact, last year’s annual payroll for the three casinos averaged $50 million, and with the new property, annual payroll will exceed $100 million, according to Rolin. “If a tribal member wants a job, it’s available. No one can say we’re underemployed,” he adds.

As a result of the PBCI tribe’s continued economic success, every tribal member has $30,000 in available funds to complete a high school education or earn an advanced degree. Once a year, tribal members receive compensation on their birthdays while all senior tribal members receive a monthly stipend for assistance. The PBCI also provides comprehensive community services, including a health center, education programs, social services, a Tribal Court, volunteer fire department, police department, and a housing authority. In addition, the Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority administers a number of businesses, representing a variety of industries from entertainment, manufacturing, health care, and farming. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the PBCI contributed $95,000 to the Red Cross.

One objective of the new casino is to attract a wider range of visitors. “With what we already have, the gaming market reaches Pensacola, Mobile and as far north as Birmingham, but with the opening of the new facility, we want to reach as far east as Columbus, Georgia and Panama City, Florida,” said Brent Pinkston, vice president of marketing and opening site manager for the Wind Creek property, who moved from his job as executive director of slots and marketing at The Venetian in Las Vegas. In Pinkston’s estimation, “The Wind Creek Hotel and Casino offers a more upscale feel, comparable and better than every property in Biloxi.”

To continue competing at a higher level with gaming along the Gulf Coast and with hundreds of millions in revenue to the tribe and Atmore community at stake, The PBCI has been trying for years to expand gaming options to encompass slot machines, poker, blackjack, and roulette, all the lucrative Class III casino gaming considered illegal in Alabama. But to understand the current court battle in Alabama, one must first understand the tangle of federal rules and court rulings over the past two decades.

In 1988, IGRA was established in an effort to foster economic development, self sufficiency and strong tribal governments, as well as provide a regulatory structure for Indian gaming. But when this tribal sovereignty was established, IGRA also involved the states in the political framework by ruling gaming could be allowed on Indian reservations as long as the state doesn’t prohibit the games. Seeking a hand in regulating Indian operations, California later challenged the IGRA ruling, thus codifying into law a bigger role for the state. In essence, what had been established with the initial IGRA ruling became “semi-sovereignty,” says Dr. Steven Light, a political scientist and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

If a state refused to negotiate a tribal compact, IGRA also stipulated a tribe and state had to negotiate in good faith, and if this didn’t occur, the tribe could sue in federal court. And Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe, the PBCI, did just that. In 1991 the PBCI sued the state of Alabama, alleging that Gov. Guy Hunt failed to negotiate in “good faith” when Hunt blocked the PBCI from expanding casino gaming. U.S. District Judge Alex Howard threw out the lawsuit, saying the state was immune to litigation.

In 1996, the Seminoles, who today generate approximately $1 billion annually from their Class II bingo operations, sued the state of Florida in their attempt to expand to casino gaming, but the Supreme Court ruled the case was unconstitutional due to state sovereignty, continuing a policy of eviscerating any political clout the tribes had when trying to negotiate with states. However, in 1999 the Interior Secretary of the U.S. opened a new avenue of recourse for Indian tribes, allowing tribes to create compacts approved without states’ consent.

Fast forward to February 2006, when Gov. Bob Riley and Attorney General Troy King announced new legislation meant to overhaul provisions in the Alabama state constitution and end all profit-earning gambling loopholes. A few months later in August, King sent a letter to the Department of the Interior (DOI) asking them to deny the PCBI’s request to expand its gaming within the state, but the PCBI used the new procedures outlined by the DOI to keep communications open with the department in regard to their expansion requests. In 2007, an Alabama Fifth Circuit ruling judged the new procedures followed by the tribe as invalid and, following precedent, dismissed the tribe’s Class III requests.

As of April 2008, Attorney General Troy King has a suit pending in U.S. District Court in Mobile seeking to strike down the regulations that allow the U.S. Department of Interior and American Indian tribes to bypass a state’s refusal to negotiate a compact for casino-style gaming. King’ lawsuit claims the Bureau of Indian Affairs is overstepping its authority and abrogating Alabama’s states rights. A similar Texas suit awaits a Supreme Court ruling.

In a statement released April 10, 2008, the PBCI said, “The preliminary decision limits and defines what games can be played in the state by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians on their sovereign land. These games are the same games currently being played at competing facilities that our Attorney General Troy King has visited and approved for years.” The PBCI statement also points to King’s “selectively applied justice” when it comes to the expansion of unregulated gaming by wealthy businessmen throughout the state’s metropolitan areas and refers to this current lawsuit as a “Hail Mary pass thrown after the game has been called.”

Back in Atmore, Frieda Lowery, an auditor at Jeff Davis Community College who has lived in the area for 38 years, says Atmore has been economically depressed since Kmart closed about ten years ago. As far as gambling goes, she laughed and says, “I’m a number cruncher. I can’t bear the thought of letting go of money.” But even though she’s never wagered a penny, Lowery says, “Atmore would be stagnant if it weren’t for the growth of the tribe.”

The Poarch band of Creek Indian History
In the late 1770s, the Creek Indians inhabited a significant portion of the Alabama and Georgia region, referring to themselves as the Muscogees, or people living in wetlands. During colonial times, English traders referred to them as Creeks because their towns were typically situated along creek banks. At the time, the ancestors of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians lived along the Alabama River, including areas from Wetumpka south to the Tensaw settlement.

The 1790 Treaty of York enabled the U.S. government to improve the Indian Trail through Alabama, thereby encouraging white settlement. After this treaty, Creeks were allowed to establish businesses along the trail, which eventually became a Federal Road. To meet the demands for the necessary services along the road, the “friendly” Poarch Creek Indians moved downriver, acting as guides, interpreters, ferrymen, and river pilots, managing inns and raising cattle, an operation which continues today.

White expansion and the growth of cotton farming in Creek territory resulted in increased tensions, culminating in the final battle and defeat of the Creek Nation at Horseshoe Bend in 1813. As a result of the treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814, the Creeks were forced to cede their territory, over 21 million acres, to the United States and the forcible removal of people from their land began.

Despite the 1830 Indian Removal Act of Indians to Indian Territory in what’s now Oklahoma, several Creek families in the Tensaw community whose assistance the U.S. government valued were permitted land grants by a special act of Congress in 1836. But because timber companies had already staked claim to large tracts of land and forest, these families moved inland from the Alabama River into the Poarch area.

In the aftermath of the forced re-settlement along the route known as the Trail of Tears, the Poarch Creek Indians became increasingly impoverished and segregated as federal and state governments placed a succession of restrictions on Indians throughout the Southeast. In Alabama, for example, an Indian could not testify against a white man, and it wasn’t until 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act granted U.S. citizenship to all Indians born in the U.S., whether or not they were born on a reservation.

In the 1940s, Poarch Creek Indian community leaders, such as Calvin McGee and Edward L. Tullis, took action to improve community conditions and educational opportunities, and it was during the 1950s, a dedicated leader of a nine-member governing body was established. The 1970s brought about a series of Supreme Court decisions upholding the Creeks right to self-government, and after years of advocating a return to sovereignty, in 1984 the Poarch Band of Creek Indians became the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama.

Gambling 101

Types of gambling:
Commercial, privately run operations like Atlantic City
State lotteries
Charitable gaming whose revenues go to civic organizations
Indian gaming, regulated by the tribe and federal government

Classes of Gaming:
Class I: Tribal trading games

Class II: Charity bingo played with technologic aids – basically computers with software. The game boxes look like slot machines, but you can’t play against the house, so when you put your quarter in somewhere, someone else is putting a quarter in and you’re both connected by a server to the place where there’s a bingo blower.

Class III: Casino-style gaming, slot machines and card games

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