Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Seminole casino holds lessons for Massachusetts"

In stark contrast to the generally antagonistic coverage by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel of Seminole gaming, the Boston Globe recently published a balanced and informative story about the tribe. Here are a few excerpts from the November 18 Boston Globe article about the advantages to the states, including Massachusetts, of entering into gaming compacts with the tribes:

It is Monday at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and the Seminole tribe will reap millions tonight - not a single dime of which will go to the state of Florida.

This massive resort opened three years ago, and because it operates on tribal land, no compact from the state was needed and none of the tribe's estimated $1.3 billion in annual resort casino proceeds are paid to the state.

It is the scenario that Governor Deval Patrick fears will happen in Massachusetts and explains in large part why the governor wants to preempt Indian gaming by setting up a system to issue state licenses for three casinos. The governor wants to avoid Florida's fate and make sure Massachusetts gets a big cut of the action; his plan calls for casino operators to pay the state hundreds of millions a year.

...Today's glitzy Hard Rock casino has humble origins. In 1979, the Seminole became the first American tribe to officially open a gambling business when it sponsored high-stakes bingo games in an aluminum building where the only food offered was hot dogs.

A quarter century later, after years of failed negotiations with the state, the tribe opened two Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos, one each in Tampa and Hollywood, near Fort Lauderdale. The projects were co-developed by Suffolk Downs principal owner Richard T. Fields, who wants to develop the racetrack in East Boston with similar offerings, and has cited his accomplishment with the Florida tribal casinos in presentations to Patrick administration officials.

The casino in Hollywood has many of the trappings Patrick would like to see at Massachusetts casinos. In addition to a 130,000-square-foot casino in the center of the complex, there is a gauntlet of outdoor restaurants and retail stores - everything from Brats, a children's clothing store, to Hooters, where chicken wings are served by waitresses in skimpy clothing - and a 5,500-seat theater where big-name artists perform. To attract a wider clientele, there is a European-style spa and fitness center, 50,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, and a 4.5-acre lagoon-style pool where parents watch over their sun-splashed children about 100 feet from the casino hall.

Befitting of the Hard Rock music theme, memorabilia is scattered throughout the hotel, from Buddy Holly's blue knit sweater to a pair of Elvis Presley's corduroy pants. Signs near the pool's stone boulders read, "Rock on, but do not climb on rocks," and the housekeeping staff comes into the rooms several times a day, turning up the stereo volume to rock music.

The tribe's presence is subtle but apparent. The shampoo is made with sweetgrass, which grows in the Everglades. The casino store - where patrons can use their player reward points earned from slots - sells baskets, pottery, and other handmade goods. There is a museum with exhibits tied to the Seminoles.

"We used to be able to live on the game from the land. Now we're living on the gaming on the land," said Max Osceola, a Seminole tribal council member. "It's a different commodity that we now have to manage. We used to hunt deer. Now we're hunting deals."

The Seminoles were able to open their casino on their reservation under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federal law adopted in 1988 that allows gambling on sovereign Indian territory, outside the reach of state regulations. In the nearly 20 years since the act was adopted, Indian-run casinos have
sprouted across the country.

The flow of money from these casinos more than doubled in the last six years, from $11 billion in revenue at 311 operations in 2000 to $25 billion at 387 operations last year, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. The explosion of revenue is forcing states like Massachusetts and Florida to
reconsider their previous opposition and confront the idea of getting in on the act, or risk losing a lucrative money source that could support their state governments.

...In the most recent development, Florida negotiated with the Seminoles for a share of the tribe's proceeds, in exchange for allowing the tribe to adopt the more lucrative Las Vegas-style rules on its slot machines. The talks began after the Seminoles contended they were at a disadvantage to the racetracks. Another reason for the state's sudden willingness to deal is that the US Department of the Interior told state officials that unless they made a pact with the tribe the federal agency would give the tribe a license without Florida's consent.

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