Casino boost for city, county

Published 1:21 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2011

With an annual payroll in excess of $55 million and an employee base exceeding 1,700, Wind Creek Casino & Hotel has a huge impact on Escambia County — and its closure could be detrimental to the local economy during already uncertain times.

Pulling the plugs on the more than 1,200 electronic bingo machines at the Atmore-based casino, along with its two additional operations in Montgomery and Wetumpka, has become the mission of newly elected Attorney General Luther Strange. Much like predecessor Troy King, Strange is targeting illegal gaming, only he is also focusing on Indian casinos.

In a letter to the National Indian Gaming Commission, Strange requested that the commission ban electronic bingo machines at the state’s Indian casinos — which include Atmore’s Poarch Creek-owned Wind Creek.

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“I would ask that any regulations make clear that the mere fact that traditional bingo is allowed in certain parts of this state does not mean that ‘electronic bingo’ is legal on Indian lands in this state,” Strange wrote in his letter.

Jay Dorris, president and CEO at PCI Gaming, said he is unclear why Strange has decided to direct his efforts at the Tribe.

“I do not know,” Dorris simply stated Thursday afternoon, declining to comment further.

Dorris said the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ gaming enterprise currently employs 1,725 people at its three gaming operations and the Mobile Greyhound Park. More than 900 people work at Wind Creek in Atmore, offering employment to residents of Atmore, Flomaton, Brewton and other surrounding communities.

PCI Gaming officials pride themselves on offering permanent jobs during shaky times.

“Nearly every other day, you hear about different companies letting people go,” Dorris said. “Everybody is focused on trying to survive the recession and tough times. The jobs we have are good jobs and our employees are compensated very fairly, we have a full benefit load that goes with that. Anytime you have 1,700 jobs, it’s a good thing, and I would think that you wouldn’t want to put that many people out on the street.”

In addition, in excess of $31.5 million of the more than $55 million in payroll is paid out of Wind Creek Atmore, Dorris said.

Despite the economic impact of PCI Gaming’s casinos, Gov. Robert Bentley’s office said this week that he supports Strange’s efforts.

Indian casinos are governed by federal regulations, although they are restricted to the type of gaming that is allowed in the state.

Strange’s argument in his letter to the NIGC is that the state bans all bingo games, aside from a few exceptions for charity bingo in certain counties.

“Machines that accept cash or credit and then dispense cash value prizes based upon chance are slot machines under Alabama law and are not made legal by any bingo amendment,” Strange wrote. “Likewise, no local bingo rule, regulation or ordinance can legally authorize slot machines.”

Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sheryl Vickery said she believes shutting down operation at Wind Creek would be detrimental to the community because of all the other contributions the Tribe offers.

“That’s what has kept our community going over these years since it opened,” she said. “We would lose a lot of jobs, opportunities and would be in big trouble if they were shut down. Just with the money that PCI has given back to the community; to the public and private schools and YMCA recently, and for this Chamber over the years, what would happen if they didn’t have that extra funding to give back to the community, which they are very generous of doing?”

Recently, the Tribe donated much-needed funds to Atmore area schools totaling $1,626,407 and just this week announced a $150,000 donation to the Atmore Area YMCA with up to an additional $150,000 in matching funds.

Strange enjoyed a victory in his war on gaming earlier this week as the three major gaming equipment companies agreed to pull their electronic bingo machines out of the state.

The agreement does not apply to the three Creek Indian casinos, but does affect the non-operational machines at VictoryLand and Country Crossing in Houston County that were closed down late last year.

International Gaming Technology, Bally Technologies and Multimedia Games are the three companies working with the attorney general and have each signed agreements to remove their machines from the state within 60 days.

As for the future of PCI Gaming, Dorris said its business as usual.

“We want to continue trying grow our business,” Dorris said. “We enjoy interacting with our customers and our guests. We like the people we all work with; I like coming to work and I hopefully all of our employees like coming to work. We have our facility in Gretna, Fla., which that should break ground the first of March,” Dorris said. “It’s exciting times.”

As for the last two years, Dorris said PCI Gaming has accomplished the mission it set out to achieve.

“We are very pleased with the efforts that our entire employee base has made to deliver our purpose of trying to server our guests, and every one of us has been successful in doing that,” Dorris said. “Wind Creek Atmore has been a fantastic facility. I think we have been very successful of interception gaming business that was going to Biloxi and they are coming her now. That is very rewarding; to be here in south Alabama and be able work in south Alabama and keep money that would have otherwise gone on by, here in the community. We believe that we’ve got the best steakhouse in the State of Alabama, we’ve got a four-diamond hotel with our spa and culinary school, there’s not another facility that offers that kind of combination in the state.”