Engines, Indians and the future of gaming

By Bob Morgan
Posted 5/22/07

Former state senator and Baldwin County commissioner Albert Lipscomb is keeping a wary eye on the west.

Lipscomb, who could be returning to the Alabama Senate if he prevails in a large field of candidates seeking the vacant District 32 seat, …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get the gift of local news. All subscriptions 50% off for a limited time!

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Engines, Indians and the future of gaming


Former state senator and Baldwin County commissioner Albert Lipscomb is keeping a wary eye on the west.

Lipscomb, who could be returning to the Alabama Senate if he prevails in a large field of candidates seeking the vacant District 32 seat, makes no bones about gambling. He is opposed to it on moral grounds.

"If casinos are brought to the Alabama Gulf Coast in the foreseeable future, it will be by sleight of hand," he said during a recent interview.

In that regard, he is concerned about the "Alabama Foreign Trade Investment Zone" that is coming up for a vote next month in Mobile County.

If approved the city council of Prichard would be allowed to set up a tax district that would allow for the importation of quota-free and duty-free commodities allowed by law. This would presumably be a boost to the city's well-documented economic woes.

Prichard is the same city positioned to be the future home of the Alabama Motorsport Park that will bear Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s name. The Park and entertainment complex is planned to open in 2010.

Lipscomb, however, has questions.

"Is this the first free trade zone potentially established in Alabama? If the answer is yes, we need to take a closer look. It could set a precedent.

"If a free trade zone sets aside certain federal laws, then does it set aside certain state laws," namely, the state constitution's prohibition against "games of chance."

If so, an issue that would be decided by Mobile County voters alone could potentially be, in Lipscomb's words, an "open door" or "avenue" to the establishment of casinos in the area.

Couple that concern of Lipscomb's with an observation the former legislator, who served in the Alabama Senate for 13 years, makes concerning the Motorsport Park. The Motorsport investor group has signed a contract with Trans World International (TWI), the event arm of IMG, one of the world's top sports management and marketing firms. Last year IMG and Harrah's Entertainment agreed to promote the World Series of Poker around the world.

"To me, IMG is directly tied into casino gambling," said Lipscomb. "How does all this connect?"

A worst case scenario for Lipscomb might follow this domino effect:

The Alabama Foreign Trade Investment Zone would serve as a loophole of sorts through which casinos might come in.

That would open the door for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, the state's only federalized tribe, to petition the state under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA) for the privilege of matching any form of "Class III" gaming (which includes craps, blackjack and other table games).

The Poarch Band might successfully come to a "destination area" such as Gulf Shores or Orange Beach where they own land or might purchase some and open a gaming establishment. (According to the records of the Baldwin County Revenue Commissioner, the Poarch Band currently owns 18 parcels of land in the county, most of which are small parcels of an acre or so.)

Beyond Prichard, farther to the west and across the Mississippi stateline, Lipscomb points to another development he says could come to bear over here.

"Whether the federal government would force local governments to actually accept casinos … is being played out in Mississippi as we speak," Lipscomb said.


The Mississippi Band of Choctaws operate two casinos and hotels at Pearl River Resort in Neshoba County. Now, they want to open a $375 million gaming facility in casino-free Jackson County, where they have approximately 60 acres in trust.

The facility, which would include a hotel with more than a thousand rooms and other attractions, would be located near the interstate in the vicinity of Ocean Springs. It would be the first casino encountered by Alabama gaming patrons entering the state from Mobile County.

Concerns about Indian gaming were voiced aplenty at the Southern Gaming Summit held earlier this month at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center. Likewise, more than a few voices were raised in defense.

"My opinion is that gaming on reservation lands is a good thing … but the pendulum has swung way beyond that," said Dan M. McDaniel Jr., an attorney from Jackson, Miss., who manages Phelps Dunbar's gaming practice in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida. His reference was to "off-reservation" gaming.

"Everything associated with this has caused the public to look at this with a jaundiced eye," he said of the Choctaws' casino proposal for Jackson County, a proposal he called unfair to the citizens of the county and state.

Noting other casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast pay a tax rate of 12 percent on their gross revenues, something the Mississippi Band of Choctaws would be exempt from paying, McDaniel called the Choctaw proposal "sad" in light of the area's devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"The reason the area is recovering now is because of the casinos," McDaniel said. He called a "12 percent advantage of growth a huge amount" and clear advantage for the Indians against other gaming competitors.

"Ground Zero" is what McDaniel called the gaming showdown in Jackson County, one he expects the Mississippi Band of Choctaws to lose come November in a non-binding referendum on the issue. Should off-reservation gaming be approved in Jackson County, then it could happen in Tunica, Miss., Atlantic City or Las Vegas, McDaniel said.

Yet, George Skibine, acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, called the prospects "gloomy" for the 30 tribes or so besides the Mississippi Band of Choctaws who are seeking government approval for off-reservation gaming.

Skibine, a panelist at the Southern Gaming Summit, noted that in the 19 years since IGRA became federal law only three tribes have been granted off-reservation gaming. Those tribes were in Wisconsin, Washington and Michigan. Besides, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne does not favor off-reservation gaming, Skibine said.


Jason Giles, deputy executive director and general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Association, himself a tribal citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, said the three cases where Indian tribes were granted off-reservation gambling came as a result of "correcting historical wrongs."

He calls concerns over off-reservation gambling a media invention.

"There is not an impending explosion of off-reservation gaming," Giles said. "It has to do with tribes trying to take care of their folk."

He readily admits the off-reservation issue has put the Department of the Interior in a tough situation. Tribes petitioning want to go off tribal lands as little as two and a half miles and as much as 1,500 miles.

"We want a fair process … without this cloak of gaming," Giles told those at the Summit.

McDaniel insisted the reality of off-reservation gaming facing Jackson County has nothing to do with being run off historical and tribal lands. It is about the loss of jobs and businesses in the Ocean Springs area should an Indian casino open and with it Indian clothing stores, a grocery, coffeeshop, bookstore, whatever. His reference was to that "12 percent advantage" the Indians would enjoy.


Tribal officials with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, the state's only federalized tribe, failed to respond to numerous requests for an interview in connection with this article. Others, however, were eager to speak.

Steve Franklin of Phenix City, chief of the Kawita tribe of Creeks in Russell County, said it is the specter of future gaming dollars that makes the state recognition process so politically tough and hopeless in his opinion for Indian groups seeking state recognition today.

That is true, he said, even though the Poarch Band is the only state tribe with "Class II" gaming at present (bingo, instant bingo and games akin to bingo) and the only tribe that could be granted "Class III."

"If it wasn't for the money we'd have been recognized four years ago," Franklin said, noting the Poarch Band has considerable political clout. "It's all about the money."

A bill introduced in the Regular Session of the 2007 Alabama Legislature that would have granted state recognition for the 110-member Kawita tribe (Franklin said the number would increase to 700 to 800 if state recognition was granted) started out as the ninth to be considered by the Governmental Affairs Committee. The next week, on a particular morning, it had dropped to tenth and, by 2 p.m. the same day, was eleventh, Franklin said.

"I always have hope but that's all I got is hope," he said of getting state recognition for his tribe. He admits the Kawita opposed the Poarch Band back in 1986-87 and some harsh words ensued. The same occurred when the Poarch Band wanted to purchase land in the Russell County area in the 1990s, Franklin said.


The Feb. 2007 issue of Indian Gaming Business reports that Indian gaming is a $23 billion industry. Two hundred twenty-seven tribes operate 420 casinos in 30 states. Yet, total tribal government economy, including gaming, ranges from $40 billion to $60 billion, the publication notes.

Native American agriculture in 2002 totaled $745 million in sales, according to the same publication. Native Americans owned 2.7 million head of cattle and 54.4 million acres of land. So, what does gaming do? It drives the economic engine that allows tribes like the Poarch Band to diversify, Indian Gaming Business said.

Last year, after Attorney General Troy King asked the Secretary of the Interior to deny the 2,300-member Poarch Band's request to expand their gaming ventures in Alabama, Tribal Chairman Buford L. Rolin said that very thing: "Our gaming business has … provided us with capital that we have used to start other businesses."

As for the city of Prichard's so-called "free trade zone" and Albert Lipscomb's concerns about what might come with it, a spokesman in Gov. Bob Riley's press office said he doubted the zone would be the first in the state. After all, the governor is all for trade. But the spokesman said he wasn't certain. He suggested contacting the Alabama Development Office. They failed to return the call.

Perhaps only this is certain: Federal and state administrations change, and who can say what will happen with the issue of gambling in Alabama in the future. All kinds of things might happen.

It's like something Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, said during the Southern Gaming Summit.

Richer said people kept asking him when would casinos be allowed on land along the Mississippi coast. His response was always the same, namely, "When God puts them there."

On Aug. 29, 2005, with the winds and water of Katrina, they came on land.