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Choctaw land purchases raise speculation about casino

OCEAN SPRINGS — The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) has purchased three parcels of land totaling 52 acres near Interstate 10 and Highway 57, fueling speculation that the tribe plans a casino development that could siphon off much of the drive-in casino traffic from Florida and Alabama that currently heads to casinos in Harrison County.

The tribe has been tight-lipped about plans for the property that adjoins an existing 40-acre industrial site with two MBCI businesses, First American Printing & Direct Mail and First American Plastic Molding Enterprise. Ironically, the Coast’s two largest casinos, Beau Rivage and Grand Casinos, are listed as major clients of First American Printing & Direct Mail on the Web site for the tribe. Other major clients include the State of Mississippi and the Republican Party.

When contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal, the tribe would neither confirm nor deny plans for a casino or bingo hall. The tribe operates the Silver Star Resort & Casino in Philadelphia.

“We are accustomed to the speculation that comes along with our economic development,” Chief Philip Martin said in a news release prepared after the MBJ contacted the tribe asking if a casino was planned for the property. “The tribe has recently acquired approximately 52 acres of land adjacent to its present industrial site for purposes of expanding its economic development activities in Jackson County. The tribe has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial working relationship with Jackson County and presently employs about 150 people. We feel that Jackson County offers an excellent opportunity for business growth and the tribe has an interest in expanding its economic opportunities and being a working partner with Jackson County in that growth.”

Jackson County officials contacted were unaware of plans for the 52 acres, which were reportedly purchased for about $2,880,000 cash. Rumors of a proposed casino, though, have run rampant through the county, the only coastal county which voted against legalizing gaming. An Indian casino, however, would not need approval by county voters.

Tribal gaming revenues are exempt from state gaming taxes and federal income taxes. Lands owned by Native Americans are also exempt from county property taxes. That is an advantage to any business enterprise, not just a casino. Other speculation about plans for the land purchased by the Choctaws includes establishment of a light industrial park or expansion of their existing businesses in the area. Private businesses locating in such a park would pay a lease to the Choctaws, but wouldn’t have to pay property tax.

Another business advantage enjoyed by the Choctaws is being a minority-owned firm. Some industries like Ford Motor Co., which has contracts with the Choctaws, have pledged to buy a certain percentage of supplies from minority-owned firms.

Approval to open a Choctaw casino in Ocean Springs would require Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to negotiate an agreement with the federal government. Lisa Mader, a spokesman for the governor, said he has not been contacted with regards to the issue.

Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said he doubts a casino is planned on the newly purchased Choctaw property.

“Remember they have invested in a very significant direct mail services operation in that area,” Olivier said. “They are probably one of the leaders in the region in providing those kinds of services. I also think they would be very hard pressed to convince the state government that there needs to be another casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Although the federal government does have ultimate authority over Indian gaming, the state must enter into a compact for the Indian gaming site to be recognized. They would have to initiate a conversation with Governor Musgrove and enter into a compact to move forward in efforts to gain authority from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government to establish an Indian gaming facility.”

Olivier said Harrison County gaming companies won’t disregard the possibility of a casino at the site. But he doesn’t believe they will be overly concerned because there would be a lengthy process involved in siting a casino there, and numerous hurdles to overcome.

Olivier said opposition would include the fact that existing gaming properties pay a 12% tax on gross revenues

“That generates about $40 million a year for Harrison County, and about $300 million a year for the State of Mississippi,” Olivier said. “The Indian gaming properties pay no taxes. I think more people are miffed about that than anything. They just aren’t happy there is no benefit to the community whatsoever. The Indian gaming facility that exists in our state pays nothing other than an in lieu tax, which is absolutely miniscule compared to what our traditional gaming operations pay.”

Zoning would be another hurdle as the area located north of the Sunplex Industrial Park is not zoned for a casino or retail development. Olivier said he would expect significant opposition to the casino in Jackson County, and believes Harrison County residents would want any casino in Jackson County to contribute to the economy just like existing casinos do because those funds are used to improve the Coast infrastructure.

“That is how we have been able to build five new schools, and put in $350 million in gaming tax revenues on highway development,” Olivier said. “That money came from gaming taxes.”

Creda Stewart with the public information department of MBCI said the Choctaws have a democratic form of government, and the tribal council would have to approve any plans for a casino or other type of commercial development in Jackson County.

“Projects have to be brought before tribal board, and nothing like that has been done,” Stewart said. “Every time there is an expansion in any sector of economic development program, the tribal council has to review that. Every time they do expand in any of those areas, there is a lot of speculation.”

Stewart said there has been speculation about a casino or bingo hall on the Choctaw’s property in Jackson County ever since it was purchased in 1991.

MBCI currently owns and operates manufacturing, service, retail and tourism enterprises, employing about 8,000 people with an annual payroll of about $124 million. MBCI is one of the 10 largest employers in Mississippi.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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