Feds clear way for Choctaw casino in Jackson County, but …
If the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has any designs on building a casino in Jackson County, the recent ruling from the Bureau of Indian Affairs is good news.
The bad news? Gov. Haley Barbour, whose approval would be needed, said last week the project would not receive it.
On June 14, assistant secretary for Indian affairs Larry Echo Hawk rescinded a 2008 memorandum that restricted off-reservation gaming for Indian tribes across the U.S. The memorandum was one of the major roadblocks the Choctaws encountered in 2006 when they first considered building a casino on 60 acres off Highway 57 near Ocean Springs. The nearly 200-mile distance from the site in Jackson County to the Choctaws’ principal reservation in Neshoba County was deemed too far by former Indian Affairs secretary Carl Artman. Other Indian tribes that had sought off-reservation gaming permits from the BIA in 2008 were also denied.
“The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation,” Echo Hawk said in a press release announcing its reversal.
The lifting of that restriction means that, in theory, the Choctaws have been given the green light by the federal government to take preliminary steps toward building and opening a casino in Jackson County. But a provision in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires consent from each state’s governor, and Barbour said last week that he would be opposed to the Choctaws having a gaming presence in Jackson County, the only county on the Coast where casino gambling is prohibited.
In 2007, Jackson County voters approved a nonbinding referendum that stood in opposition to the casino.
“In Mississippi, that should dispose of the issue,” Barbour said. “I have consistently opposed any expansion of gaming beyond the counties where they have it now.”
It was unknown last week what intentions the Choctaws had for Jackson County. Multiple phone messages left with the public information office of the Choctaws’ Tribal Affairs division went unreturned.
To go with Barbour’s approval, the Choctaws would have to hold public comment hearings, and the BIA would have to conclude that the casino would be in the best interests of both the Choctaws and the surrounding community.
Jackson County supervisor John McKay, whose district includes the land owned by the Choctaws, said he had already heard from constituents.
“There’s already opposition, and there’s not even anything to oppose yet. We’ve had no discussion with (the Choctaws). I would anticipate hearing from them eventually, but not in the near future.”
Waiting until Barbour leaves office in January to pursue the project might not change the Choctaws’ luck. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant voiced his opposition to the proposed casino during his campaign in 2007. Bryant spokesperson Mick Bullock said last week that hasn’t changed.
Dave Dennis, one of Bryant’s opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary, also opposes the idea of a casino in Jackson County.
“The citizens of Jackson County have spoken loud and clear that they do not want a casino in their county and as governor I would not authorize such expansion,” he said.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, who’s seeking the governor’s office as a Democrat, echoed Dennis and Bryant.
“As a mayor and a former supervisor, I know the importance of home rule and allowing the people to govern their own communities,” he said. “In most cases, I will defer to the will of the people in local communities. This would be one of those cases.”
One of Dupree’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Bill Luckett, had not responded to a message seeking comment by the Mississippi Business Journal’s press time last week.