A political and legal battle is brewing between politicians in York County who are advocates of economic development but oppose the Catawba Indian Nation's plan to open a casino on its York County reservation.
The problem is, plainly, gambling.
There is no way around it. This fight is over money and whether the Catawbas have a right to make it the way other Indian tribes do - huge casinos that attract thousands of visitors who spend not just millions, but billions.
A casino would employ thousands and fill state coffers with taxes, tribal leaders maintain, but several area politicians say a casino is not an acceptable way to boost the economy.
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York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell, a Republican who proudly wears the label of pro-business, said Thursday a casino is "not the kind of economic development we are envisioning."
Although the County Council has not met to discuss the casino, Blackwell as chairman said he is confident the group will stand with law enforcement and state politicians who oppose the casino.
"We'd be all for it if it were some other kind of business," Blackwell said. "Personally, I don't want to see a gambling house in York County."
The Catawbas say they have dealt with generations of discrimination, widespread poverty and injustice.
Some tribe members who personally oppose gambling say the casino is an economic necessity not just for the tribe, but for the region as it deals with double-digit unemployment.
In a lawsuit filed this week, the tribe argues the state changed the rules when it allowed casino-boat gambling near Charleston. The Catawbas have the legal and economic right to open the casino, advocates say, and reap the economic benefits denied them for too long by governments that did not honor past deals.
"All the people opposed to this need to understand what we, the Catawba people, and the governments, all agreed all those years ago, and the government continues to change against us," said tribe member Ellen Bridges.
"The fact is, the government again broke its promises to the Indians."
In the lawsuit, the tribe claims a 2005 state law that allows cruise ship gambling off the coast of Charleston means the tribe should be allowed to have gaming, which the Catawbas were granted in a 1993 land-claim settlement with the state and federal governments.
That settlement guaranteed the Catawbas two gaming halls, including one in York County, but courts have ruled that they lost the right to operate video poker when the state outlawed it in 2000.
In 2006, the tribe closed a bingo hall it operated on Cherry Road in Rock Hill, blaming a new state-run lottery for taking away business.
Former tribal executive committee member Dewey Adams, who helped lead the tribe for more than two decades including the time around the 1993 settlement, said the casino is "a long time coming."
Tribal members were not allowed to vote until almost 1960, could not legally marry outside their race until not long after that, and attended segregated schools until the 1960s.
The 1993 settlement over 144,000 acres of disputed land in York and Lancaster counties was an attempt by all sides to right some past wrongs, Adams said, but the state of South Carolina continues to treat the Catawbas unjustly and illegally.
"The state changed the deal," Adams said, citing the video poker ban, creation of the state lottery, and now allowing cruise-ship gambling. "We had rights to bingo and then rules changed afterward and we were never able to change. "This will create jobs - not just for Catawbas - and improve our housing and educational opportunities. It will make money for the tribe and for the county and state. It is a win-win."
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, pledged to "do anything in his power" to stop the casino.
A casino - or rather, the vice of gambling that drives it - is just not acceptable in York County, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill. He vowed to push for a resolution from a majority of the county's overwhelmingly Republican legislative delegation to oppose the casino and support the state's fight against it.
In the lawsuit, the Catawbas have asked a judge to bar police from confiscating any video machines or arresting any tribal members for possessing machines as the suit moves forward, but no date has been set for a hearing on that injunction.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General's office said Thursday the tribe's claim does not follow current law.
The tribe's lawyer, Wally Fayssoux of Greenville, said the tribe has the legal right to build the casino and the 1993 settlement guarantees that on the reservation, any gaming available anywhere in the state legally can be used on the reservation.
Former U.S. Rep John Spratt, a Democrat, was the lead government negotiator in the 1993 settlement. The man who unseated Spratt in 2010, Republican Mick Mulvaney, said Thursday the lawsuit came as a surprise after a year of contact with tribal leaders, but he expects it to be handled on the state level, not in Washington.
"The tribe's settlement reached in 1993 involved the state and federal government, but I anticipate any involvement with the current lawsuit to fall solely to the state of South Carolina," Mulvaney stated, "This is an important issue for both the tribe and folks in York County."
State Rep. Deborah Long, an Indian Land Republican whose legislative district includes the reservation, said the news of the casino was a "surprise" to her and she is neither supporting or opposing it.
Long said the economic impact is important, and the concern about safety and living near a casino is important, but she personally has no moral problem with the casino. Yet the casino project is almost certain to face opposition from the religious leaders in York County, who came out in force against video poker and the state lottery in past fights. Many tribal members oppose gambling on moral and religious grounds, but understand the economic necessity, said Amy Canty, a tribal member who ran the 2011 tribal elections.
Another tribal activist for decades, Monty Branham, said his personal opposition to gambling does not preclude the economic necessity argument for the casino - especially after the mistreatment of the Catawbas in past deals.
In 2012, tribal leaders say, Catawbas are unemployment at twice the rate as the rest of the region, and most of them earn less than half as much. "The tribe has been treated poorly by all involved in those governments," Branham said. "The 1993 settlement was not fair, so I understand the economic need, the argument, for the casino.