Will the Mississippi Band of Choctaws be successful in developing a casino resort on land it owns in Jackson County? That’s a question no one seems able to answer at this point. Through a non-binding referendum, county residents voted against tribal gaming on the November ballot.
Board of Supervisors president Tim Broussard, a proponent of tribal gaming in Jackson County, said the vote against the casino was a narrow victory and one that carries no force of law.
“It would only take a swing vote of 10% to change it,” he said. “I’m in total support of it. If you look at it strictly as a business decision, there’s no way in the world any intelligent person could be against it.”
He pointed out the tribe estimates the casino would have 2.4 million visitors a year and a $71-million payroll, which economists say turns over seven times in the community for a total $497-million economic development impact.
County resident Eleanor Jordan, however, does not agree. She and others formed Jackson Countians Against Choctaw Gaming, a loosely organized group, to keep the casino out.
“We have several very, very big concerns affecting us economically,” she said. “The Choctaws pay no taxes. They are getting grants and aid from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for their impact study. They would be a tax hazard because we envision that ours would rise to provide infrastructure for them. They can’t pay impact fees because the court struck that down.”
Even if the tribe pays a percentage of its earnings to the county, Jordan said that would be deemed a tax and thus would be illegal. The group is also concerned by the lack of state regulatory oversight for Indian gaming.
Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, pointed out that the commission’s job is to regulate casinos licensed by the state.
“As such, the MGC does not have a position on any proposed Choctaw casino,” he said. “Through the compact signed by former Gov. (Kirk) Fordice, the MGC has a good working relationship with the Choctaw Gaming Commission.”
Should the tribe opt to join forces with a commercial gaming company to open a casino in Harrison or Hancock county where gaming is legal, that would be a different matter.
“This type of operation would be regulated by the Mississippi Gaming Commission,” Gregory said. “We have seen similar partnerships in the past such as Foxwoods and tribes associated with the Myriad project in Tunica. The MGC would welcome that opportunity.”
Calls by the Mississippi Business Journal to the Choctaws’ Office of Public Information to contribute to this article were not returned by press time.
Broussard and others in Jackson County believe the tribe intends to pursue gaming somewhere on the Coast because of post-vote comments made by Beasley Denson, the recently elected miko, or chief.
Former Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin indicated he would honor the wishes of Jackson countians in the referendum. “The new chief feels no obligation to honor that and that’s normal. I’m not surprised by that,” Broussard said. “We can’t bind them one way or another to the vote in the referendum. That was held to satisfy local people.”
Jordan said the Choctaw Tribal Council passed a resolution to honor the outcome of the county vote and that Chief Denson was part of that council.
“The perception with the new chief is they’re not people of their word,” she said. “It’s damaging to their reputation. Our organization will stay active and will be ready when they continue their due diligence.”
But another group fighting against the Indian casino has disbanded. “Coast Businesses for Fair Play is no longer active,” said spokesman Tim Toranto.
According to Jordan, a great number of residents in the western part of Jackson County are opposed to tribal gaming. “We think the casino will bring in other things such as restaurants and car dealerships that will give unfair competition to local business people,” she said. “What are the Choctaws doing down here? This is not reservation land.”
New opportunities, needed jobs?
Realtor Connie Ajwaj of Beach View Real Estate in Ocean Springs does not share that view. “The real estate business is real slow right now. Maybe it would help if the casino came in,” she said. “There are people now having problems who have never had problems before. A tribal casino would help the economy and bring in jobs.”
Those jobs are important to Broussard. “There would be 2,700 diverse, decent-paying jobs,” he said. “Some of our children may not want to be welders or painters in the ship building and oil industries, and this would give them more opportunities.”
Broussard, who did not seek re-election after two terms in office, finds it interesting that some citizens are concerned about the county being so industrialized and he sees gaming as an alternative to that.
“It doesn’t get much play, but this (gaming) has no smoke stack and would help keep our children here,” he said.
Ajwaj is seeing more property foreclosures than she’s ever seen before and thinks there will be more. She also feels some business people are afraid to speak up for the casino and that some voted for it who won’t publicly acknowledge it.
Now the supervisors are considering adding to the county wide non-binding referendum by passing a resolution against the casino. Broussard said a resolution is not needed and calls it a political stunt.
“A resolution would be like coming out against industry. We pride ourselves on being industry friendly, and I treat casinos as an industry,” he said. “Plus, there are three of us leaving office in January and the new supervisors should deal with it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.