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Catawbas plan to build massive casino in York County

In a bold and shocking action that has already drawn vows of a fight from conservative political leaders, York County's Catawba Indian tribe is moving ahead with plans to build a massive gaming casino on its York County reservation.

The tribe's new leadership announced their intent in papers attached to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the state.

The lawsuit claims state laws enacted in 2005 - allowing casino boat gambling off the Charleston coast - give the tribe the right to build and open the state's largest gaming parlor, buttressed by an entertainment complex and hotel that would generate more than a half-billion dollars.

The Catawbas, the state's only federally recognized tribe, claim the tribe's 1993 settlement of a land claim with the state and federal governments allows it to open the casino, court papers state.

Construction would start next year and finish in 2014, and employ almost 4,000 people during construction and operation.

At the tribal Longhouse Wednesday, Chief Bill Harris declined to elaborate on the lawsuit.

"The lawsuit states we feel we are entitled to gaming on reservation lands," Harris said. "That's the avenue we are taking."

Assistant Chief Wayne George and other Catawba executive committee members who run the tribe's daily and political affairs agreed with the lawsuit and decision to move forward on the casino, but declined comment Wednesday.

The tribe is asking the courts to keep law enforcement officials from confiscating any gaming machines while the lawsuit is heard in the state's courts.

The plan for a casino on the 640-plus-acre reservation, in eastern York County along the Catawba River, is the sole economic viability for the tribe. Unemployment among the Catawbas is about double the state's 9.5 percent, and incomes average well below average South Carolinians, the Catawbas say.

Politicians and police have fought successfully for years in courts to keep the Catawbas from operating video poker on the reservation - and those who fought before plan to fight again.

The state would reap about $110 million yearly in gaming fees and taxes when the casino is operational, according to an economic impact study of the casino filed with the suit.

But the state senator who led past efforts to defeat the Catawbas said this fight will be won, too.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who was instrumental in crafting the 1993 settlement and would testify to its intent, said he will do "anything in his power" to keep the tribe from building and opening a casino.

The lawsuit, Hayes said Wednesday, has no merit because the tribe is not going into international waters, as casino boats based near Charleston do. Further, the 1993 settlement did not guarantee a casino, Hayes said.

"I saw the devastation that we had when video poker was legal in York County," Hayes said. "It would be a tremendous mistake to bring big-time casino gambling to York County.

"They talk about the economic benefit, but they don't talk about the economic detriment and that money's got to come from somewhere - and a lot of it's going to come from right here."

The 1993 settlement over a 144,000-acre land claim guaranteed the tribe could operate two gaming halls, including one in York County. The Catawba Bingo parlor on Cherry Road closed in 2006; the tribe claimed the state lottery ruined its business, and tribal members are left with no other way to prosper.

The tribe, which has suffered economic hardships and deprivation and disparate treatment over decades, should not be treated differently under the law than any other group, Catawba Chief Harris, stated in court papers.

"The law is supposed to mean we do not get treated differently by the government because of our race, the color of our skin or our unique beliefs, customs and culture," Harris, who promised to re-ignite the tribe's economy when elected last summer, said in the suit,

The casino would be a huge boost to the local economy, tribal leaders say, employing hundreds of the Catawbas' 2,900-plus members as well as others in the region.

"The economic development we seek for the tribe would also be a major boost to the local economy," Chief Harris said in a written statement released Wednesday.

Tribal leaders have been vocal supporters of the proposed Dave Lyle Boulevard extension, which would link Rock Hill to U.S. 521 in Lancaster County and skirt tribal property.

County leaders who had spoken with tribal leaders about building a hotel on the reservation were stunned by plans to build a casino.

"It hasn't been discussed with us at all," York County Manager Jim Baker said Wednesday. "Dave Lyle Extension was never discussed as a way to facilitate gambling."

Prospects for a casino might complicate the county's recent application to the State Infrastructure Bank for the millions needed to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard, Baker said.

The casino would be rivaled regionally only by the Cherokee casino in western North Carolina, four hours away.

Former Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue, who led the tribe for 34 years until he retired in 2007, helped craft the 1993 settlement. He said he understands the economic reasons for the tribe's wanting to build a casino - even though he personally is against gaming.

Casinos around the nation make more than $26 billion each year, federal statistics show.

"I have visited these other tribes who have casinos, and the money to be made is incredible," Blue said. "It is truly huge. Tribes have prospered. Local communities have been helped.

"I don't agree with gaming, but I wouldn't try and keep it from happening."

The S.C. Attorney General's Office, which defends the state in lawsuits, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

State prosecutors and law enforcement had successfully fended off attempts by the tribe to bring in video gaming after the state banned video poker in 2000. The state Supreme Court ruled against the Catawbas after the tribe tried to bring in video poker following the closing of the Rock Hill bingo hall.

However, the 2005 casino boat law coupled with the original 1993 settlement guaranteeing a York County site opened the door for the Catawbas, said the lawyer for the tribe, Wally Fayssoux of Greenville.

"The whole purpose of the settlement agreement was that the Catawbas be treated fairly," Fayssoux said.

Police and politicians cannot undo any shame, loss of reputation and hardships that would come if law enforcement unfairly arrests the Catawbas or takes any machines, Harris wrote in the lawsuit, so the tribe is asking for an injunction that would prohibit law enforcement from taking the machines.

It is unclear when a judge will rule on that request.

Opponents have railed for years that gaming is not just illegal, but not the type of business York County wants.

Sheriff Bruce Bryant led the opposition to keep gaming off the reservation over the years. Bryant had hear rumors that the tribe was considering a casino, but he hadn't seen the lawsuit or plans to build the casino Wednesday. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

However, Bryant, a Republican, remains opposed to the "evils of video poker."

"The effects that are not seen are in family court, divorce court, people losing their homes, writing bad checks, losing their vehicles. Gambling addiction is really a sad thing." Bryant said.

"I can't see casinos being a win for York County. Is it a win-win for the Catawba Nation? I don't know."