Bad for business

Published 8:41 pm Friday, March 8, 2013

Julie Fountain, designer at Coley’s Petals and Parties, positions a flower arrangement at Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, the company’s biggest client.

Julie Fountain, designer at Coley’s Petals and Parties, positions a flower arrangement at Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, the company’s biggest client.

Every Friday morning Julie Fountain, event coordinator and designer at Coley’s Petals and Parties, spends hours designing and perfecting flower arrangements for Wind Creek Casino and Hotel.

Fountain then spends the rest of her morning placing the flowers in just the right spots around the casino. As she does her work, she speaks to patrons and employees. She asks about their families and picks back up on conversations that began on a previous Friday. It is her routine and a big part of, not only her job, but of Coley’s profit margin. But her routine, and the revenue it represents, could be a thing of the past should a recently-filed lawsuit against PCI by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange achieve its goal of closing the Indian facility.

Cathy Coley, owner of Coley’s Petals and Parties, said the presence of the casino has had a profoundly positive effect on her business.

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“It really is scary for me,” Coley said of the lawsuit that threatens to shut down the tribe’s operation. “As a small town, family business, the casino does play a very important part.”

Coley said for years her business has been the sole supplier of flowers to the casino, the kind of relationship Terri Morris, employment relations director for Wind Creek, said the tribe strives to build with Atmore businesses.

“We really try to reach out to local businesses,” Morris said.

“We’ve been working for them for right at two and half years,” Coley said. “We change out flowers at the front desk, in the VIP section and at the buffet on a weekly basis. We also supply roses for Fire restaurant. We’ve even gotten into their special events for about a year. Those are wonderful additions and things we would never be able to do otherwise.”

Coley said people in Atmore should be mindful that the casino affects local businesses that pay in to the city’s tax base and not just the local residents they employ themselves.

“If those doors close, it will be bad,” she said. “You hate to ever have one part of your business control everything else, but it’s allowed me to be able to take on extra people in the shop. We started this thing right at the beginning of the recession, so time-wise, for us, it has been a lifesaver.”

Dale Ash, who, along with her brother, Hooper, and sister, Cindy, owns and operates Pepsi Cola Bottling Co./South Alabama Vending, said the casino is also a major part of her family’s business.

“The casino is 50 percent of our fountain business,” Ash said. “We just renewed a contract with them, which is a big, big thing for us. It would definitely impact our business if we lost them.”

Ash, whose business is known as a major source of community support in Atmore, said what the tribe has chosen to do with the money they are making at Wind Creek is just as important as the jobs they have created.

“They do a lot for this community,” she said. “My aunt has lived in the hospital for eight years, so I’m in the hospital a lot. They donate $40,000 a month just for operating costs. No one donates money for operating costs.”

In addition to their donations to local organizations, the tribe donated over $2 million to local schools last month, bringing their two-year donation total to over $3 million to schools alone.

Coley said another impact of Wind Creek on Atmore is that the jobs they have created allows their employees the ability to afford things they would not normally spend money on, especially during tough economic times.

“Flowers are luxuries. People don’t have to buy them,” Coley said. “It’s not only good for those working for the casino, but a lot of them are our customers and if they are unemployed, it will affect us and several other places in town at the same time.”

Morris said the list of those employees, at Wind Creek alone, who also live inside the Atmore city limits totals 530, of the 946 who work inside the facility. That number accounts for more than half of the casino’s staff.

In addition, Morris said Creek Casino Wetumpka currently employees 399 people, while Creek Casino Montgomery has a staff of 434. Jason Rackard, a specialist with human resources for the tribe, said the government side of PCI also employees 382 people, 260 of which have Escambia County addresses. At Creek Indian Enterprises, the marketing arm of the tribe, 122 of the 183 employees also live in Escambia County.

In addition to the Atmore-owned businesses PCI contracts with, Atmore Mayor Jim Staff has spoken out on the damaging effects the casino’s closure would have on both current and prospective businesses at Atmore’s Rivercane development site, located adjacent to Wind Creek.

“It’s good for Atmore,” Staff said. “Luther Strange needs to go get on to something else and leave this alone. If he wants to run for governor, he needs to find another platform.”

Staff said the numbers show that businesses’ success at Rivercane have a direct correlation to the casino.

“When (Wind Creek) has an event out there, (the hotels) fill up,” he said. “They’re running at 90 percent occupancy now, and have been since they started.”

Coley also pointed to increased traffic by her location on Main Street as another economic perk of the casino’s presence.

“We’re getting traffic through town now,” she said. “We have people going right by us from Pensacola and they stop in. We really need it.”

Morris said she too has heard from casino patrons who say they do shop in Atmore when visiting Wind Creek.

“I had some people from Pensacola the other day telling me that when they come through, they stop and buy things in town,” she said.

Coley said the impact of Strange’s lawsuit, were it to achieve its goal, would hinder, not help, the Atmore area and the people who call it home.

“We are just very fortunate and we appreciate the business,” she said. “It would be scary to lose it.”

Ash also pointed to the lawsuit as an unnecessary threat to the quality of life in Atmore.

“He’s just wasting money,” Ash said of Strange. “He called the casino a nuisance. I just wish we could be blessed with such nuisances. It’s been a godsend. Whether your in favor of gambling or not, you can not deny the impact PCI has had in Atmore.”