Despite Barbour and Republicans’ best efforts, community embraces new casino

SANDERSVILLE — More than six months after Bok Homa (BOHK HO-MUH) Casino opened in Jones County near Sandersville, things seem to be going smoothly for both the casino and neighboring area.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians had to weather countless efforts by local and state officials — including Gov. Haley Barbour — to stop the construction of Bok Homa. Officials cited legal, health and safety concerns.

But in late July 2010, research by the state attorney general’s office concluded that a tribal compact signed in 1992 by Gov. Kirk Fordice protects the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ right to build gaming establishments on tribal lands.

Profits from the casino already have paid off its $18 million price tag, tribal spokeswoman Erica Clemons said.

“We did a lot of feasibility studies and a lot of research, and the numbers that came up exceeded our projections,” she said, noting the casino has drawn steady patronage since its Dec. 20 opening.

Clemons declined to release specific figures.

Casino Manager Bryce Warren said the facility — which is built on tribal lands — has seen a small slump in attendance after the initial opening rush, but the casino still sees steady business.

“Any property that opens up, for the first couple of months, is going to be in the honeymoon phase,” Warren said.

Clemons added the tribe has maintained a good relationship with the surrounding communities. The tribe donated $10,000 to nearby Heidelberg in early June, and $50,000 to Sandersville in March, along with two fully equipped police cars and about $5,000 in police equipment.

“A lot of our employees and patrons live in Heidelberg and the nearby areas, and we thought that donation aligned with the philosophy of being good neighbors,” she said.

Acting Sandersville Mayor Bob White said while traffic has increased in his town, which most of the Bok Homa traffic is funneled through, no serious problems have come with it.

“It seems like things are going real well,” he said. “I mean, we’ve had a couple fender benders.”

He said the town decided to add more police presence in the form of an additional eight-hour shift when the casino opened, and that Sandersville police have controlled the increased traffic and any problems associated with it.

Sandersville also has seen a spike in sales tax diversions, with the first 10 months of this fiscal year more than doubling the first 10 months of last fiscal year.

Sandersville reaped $435,974 from July 1, 2010, to the end of May 2011 in diversions, while only getting $212,143 during the same period the previous year.

White said it looks like the town will use some of the increased income to upgrade its sewage systems.

White said from what he can tell, most of the sales tax is coming from the town’s gas stations and convenience stores as casino patrons stop in Sandersville on their way to Bok Homa.

He said while rumors of new restaurants opening in Sandersville have floated around since Bok Homa’s opening, nothing has yet become official.

“No one has contacted the town,” he said.

White said the only negative effect he’s noticed from the route to Bok Homa winding through his town is the increased amount of litter on Sandersville roads. He said with only three town employees, Sandersville is short-handed in the way of removing litter from its thoroughfares.

“We’re going to have to look into it because it has become a little bit of a problem,” he said.

Cal Callen, spokesman for a grass-roots group that opposed the casino during its construction, the Coalition for Family and Community Values, said he has yet to hear complaints about problems Bok Homa has caused the community.

He said the coalition is still together, but hasn’t been as active recently.

“We’ll be watchful, hoping for the best, expecting the worst,” he said.

Callen said group leaders have been communicating recently about how long to wait before examining the casino’s effects on the community.

“We really haven’t done any follow-up research to see how it’s doing — we figured we’d give them a little more time,” he said. “It’s almost too soon to know.”

He said the group is in talks about getting together and deciding what the next step is. He mentioned that the group may ask Mississippi State University to conduct a study following up on the one it conducted before the casino’s construction.

He said the university study predicted that after the first large crowds of casino patrons dispersed, about 70 percent of the casino’s clientele would come from a 35-mile radius of the casino, thereby only affecting the local communities.

He also said the group is concerned with road, traffic and police issues the casino may cause.

“I’m hopeful we won’t have anything happen that all those studies said were going to happen,” he said. “I don’t wish any bad news on our community.”

JESSE BASS,Hattiesburg American

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