City stands by PCI

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

As the Poarch Band of Creek Indians continue to battle local and state officials for the right to continue gaming on trust land, the City of Atmore has stepped up to say it is a friend of the Tribe.

Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said, while he has no comment on the legal issues surrounding PCI, the city plans to continue their supportive relationship with the Tribe.

“Since the casino has been in operation, Poarch Creek has been very generous to our city,” Shell said. “They’ve made donations to a number of schools, the YMCA, the animal shelter and probably some other recipients I’m not aware of. They’ve been good neighbors.”

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Shell said, while the decision that will dictate if Wind Creek survives is out of the city’s hands, he believes losing the casino would be a harsh blow to Atmore.

“I think we would be impacted catastrophically,” he said. “Nobody’s a winner if they shut it down and you end up with a seventeen-story building that’s empty. It would be impossible to fill it up with casual vacationers.”

Threats to the casino’s ability to continue operating are coming from several fronts as Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange sent his second letter of the year Wednesday to the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) urging them to take actions to prohibit specific gaming at Indian casinos in the state, including Wind Creek.

Strange is specifically targeting electronic bingo machines that look and operate like slot machines, claiming they are “‘facsimiles’ of games of chance” and “approximates the same kind of slot machine gambling that one might find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.”

According to the letter, Strange claims the machines blur the line between Class II gaming, which is legal in Alabama, and restricted Class III gaming, such as table games and slot machines.

“The Tribe’s ability to ‘obscure the line between Class II and III’ makes it harder for my office to enforce Alabama law outside of Indian land,” Strange wrote. “Alabama citizens are understandably confused when Indian tribes are allowed to call their Class III slot machines ‘bingo,’ but gambling promoters within the state’s jurisdiction cannot use the same gimmick.”

Strange urged the commission, as he did in a February 2012 letter, to “make clear that Native American Indian tribes located in Alabama cannot engage in gambling activities that are patently illegal under Alabama law.”

Currently PCI is also under fire from the Escambia County Commission, who last month sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior requesting a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling be used as precedent to dissolve the “in trust” status of lands housing the Tribe’s three casinos in Alabama – a move that would effectively shut down all Indian gaming. The ECC is pursuing a legal course of action in order to render the Indian land taxable by local and state governments. The commission has enlisted the services of attorney, and state senator, Bryan Taylor, who is also a former advisor to the Riley administration, which actively worked to shut down non-Indian casinos in the state.

“I can’t say what the legal status is,” Shell said. “But I’ve had a number of people to ask me what the city’s position was and where it stood.

I didn’t feel like it was our place to jump into the middle of something as it was being explored, but I just want the people of the city and the area to know where we stand.”

And where the city stands, Shell said, is on the precipice of losing the its biggest economic boost. In the wake of Wind Creek’s construction, the City of Atmore purchased a 740-acre development property, dubbed Rivercane, adjacent to the casino. Shell said the loss of Wind Creek could very well result in the loss of Rivercane as well.

“It would be extremely hard (for Rivercane to survive),” Shell said. “There is not a question about it. Our hotels and restaurants are a direct benefit of the traffic coming in (Wind Creek).  It’s a drawing card.”

Shell said the economic impact of Wind Creek, and other Tribal enterprises, is unparalleled in the area.

“Not only does it bring employment for their people, there’s many people here in town that also works with them,” he said. “The indirect benefits that we get in town are restaurants, hotels and gas stations. Rivercane is enjoying its success with hotels, fast food and other entities that are looking to become a part of the city.”

Although no moral objections have been raised by recent attempts to challenge PCI’s gaming status, Shell said he is not a necessarily a supporter of gambling, but is simply looking out for the best interest of the Atmore.

“My job as mayor is to look at the economic conditions of the city,” he said. “Many cities and counties and other entities are struggling and having an extremely difficult time right now. I’m not an advocate of gambling, but nobody forces you to go into the casino.”

Regardless of how events unfold for the Tribe and their casinos, Shell echoed the ideas of both Tribal council members and the county commission, particularly District 4 commissioner Brandon Smith who has been calling for the entities to “sit down and talk like neighbors” since the initial public press conference called by the ECC in April.

“I think until you sit down at the table and talk about different situations, you don’t always know what the answer is going to be,” Shell said. “(Atmore and Poarch) have worked through issues. We are good neighbors to Poarch. I think until we sit down and extend a hand of friendship, it makes things difficult to respond to.