Catawbas pursue new bingo hall

A Catawba Indian bingo hall has been proposed on U.S. 501 in eastern Marion County, a popular route for travelers headed to Myrtle Beach.

Operators of the former Carolina Amphitheater have proposed the gaming facility as part of an entertainment complex that Marion County officials say could help boost the area's flagging economy.

It also would boost finances for the York County-based tribe since its Cherry Road bingo hall in Rock Hill closed last year and plans to open another site in Myrtle Beach were derailed several years ago, a tribe official said.

The Catawbas -- the only tribe in South Carolina with federal recognition -- were dealt another serious blow earlier this month when the state Supreme Court ruled against their request to allow video gaming machines on their reservation east of Rock Hill. The tribe didn't plan to actually house gambling machines at the reservation, officials said, but wanted to use it as a bargaining chip to locate a high-stakes bingo facility on Interstate 95 near Orangeburg.

A 1993 land settlement agreement allows the tribe to have two bingo halls in the state.

Such a facility in Marion could get gaming back on track for the nation.

The tribe could locate its second S.C. gaming location at the more than 200-acre site, now called the Carolina Entertainment Complex, off U.S. 501 near the Horry County border. Developers have asked the Marion County Council to approve adding a casino, an RV park, an equestrian arena, a hotel and an active-adult residential community to the complex that's already home to the 27,000-seat amphitheater.

"There has been some discussion, but that's all there has been at this point," Dewey Adams, a member of the Catawba Executive Committee, said about the Marion site.

Adams said the tribe was approached about the plans recently and hopes to meet with developers again at the end of the month. Until then, he said, more details aren't available. Adams said, however, the location and a recent court ruling that prohibits the state from charging the tribe an $18 fee on bingo participants could help make the proposed venture successful.

The proposed gambling facility would include traditional bingo but not electronic bingo or video poker, which have been banned in the state since 2000.

"It's going to basically come down to two groups: those opposed to it on moral grounds, and those in favor of it on economic grounds," said Marion County Administrator Pete Rogers. "It's going to break down sort of like the ... lottery."

Not enough information

Bill Harris, an outspoken tribe member who has often disagreed with current leadership, said many Catawbas are still in the dark about plans in Marion. He said the tribe's Executive Committee -- which is without a chief (Gilbert Blue resigned in March) until Saturday's elections -- hasn't informed the average citizen about any talks with Marion officials.

"The only information I have is from the Internet," Harris said. "You have the Catawba Executive Committee continuing to behave as if the nation belongs to them."

Harris said the tribe's constitution requires public approval before moving on a major contract. But he won't support something when he isn't privy to details.

"I think the contract is more important than the location," he said. "They've had the opportunity to share information but haven't."

Adams insists talks are still in preliminary stages.

More votes needed

It's possible the redevelopment plan in Marion could start moving forward by the end of July.

There are at least three requirements before the plan can progress: Marion must hold a public hearing, the County Council must vote three times on the gaming facility proposal and the S.C. Department of Revenue must sign off on the gaming.

The Marion County Planning Commission held a public hearing, but county officials aren't sure if that's sufficient under law. A second hearing, this time before the County Council, might be necessary, and that could delay the project.

The earliest a final vote could come is July 26, unless officials determine another hearing is needed, Rogers said.

Developers haven't announced a timetable or released specific site plans.

800 seasonal jobs

The gaming facility could draw tourists and jobs to a county with an unemployment rate almost double the state average.

Henry Zukowski, managing partner of the Carolina Entertainment Complex, told the council that a possible 800 seasonal employees could earn between $8 and $15 an hour. Council members say the center could generate around $4 million a year in county tax revenue and employ 300-500 in the construction phase alone.

Added jobs would be good news to Marion County, which in May had the state's second-highest unemployment rate at 10.3 percent, according to the S.C. Employment Security Commission. The state's average county unemployment was 5.4 percent, while the U.S. average is 4.3 percent.

The gaming facility could also rejuvenate the Carolina Entertainment Complex, which has seen little use since it opened in July 2001.

Legal problems plagued promoter Dennis Cerilli, who in 2002 pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to five years in federal prison and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution.

Several canceled shows followed, and the amphitheater has remained empty.

The theater put on its first concert in three years this spring, and an Earth, Wind and Fire concert is scheduled for August.