Tribe to begin talks for high-stakes bingo hall

Catawba Indians looking at Marion County site

MARION -- The Catawba Indian Nation got one step closer to creating a high-stakes bingo hall in South Carolina on Tuesday, as the Marion County Council voted 5-2 on the final reading to allow gaming at the Carolina Entertainment Complex.

Developers will meet with the new executive committee of the Catawba Indians this weekend to begin negotiations. Managing partner Henry Zukowski said they hope to break ground in the next three to four months and that the gaming facility could open within a year if approved by the Catawba Indians and the S.C. Department of Revenue.

Developers hope the facility can feed off tourists traveling to and from the Grand Strand that drive through Marion.

Council members said Tuesday they also hope it can cause fewer Marion residents to travel to work each day in Horry and Georgetown counties -- a trend that tourism officials said could eventually strain the hospitality industry.

The redevelopment, which caused heated debate at Tuesday's council meeting, would use the 250 acres of land, including the amphitheater, to build a bingo hall, RV park, water park, hotel, equestrian facility and adult-living facility.

Opponents didn't want gaming in their backyard for religious reasons and because of concerns about increased crime. Others lauded the $500 million plan as a way to bring much-needed jobs and an economic boost to a county with one of the state's highest unemployment rates.

"I feel what we're doing is going to help the citizens of Marion County, at least some if not all," said Councilman Thomas Shaw, who voted in favor of the project.

The Catawbas have been talking with the developers for a couple of months, but elected new leadership in July. Chief Donald Rodgers did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

The deal is still far from definite. The Catawbas must negotiate with the developers, and the state Department of Revenue must give the final OK.

"The ordinance proposed does not establish bingo," said county attorney Tim Pogue. "It's simply allowing it as a special use in this special entertainment district."

The council members who supported the proposal all cited Marion's high unemployment rate. In June it was 11.4 percent -- the second-highest in the state and double South Carolina's average of 5.5 percent.

"Marion County is in desperate need of jobs and capital investment," said Councilman John Atkinson.

"This has given us the opportunity of a significant financial boost. It could come in the form of attracting tourism dollars."

As of 2004, there were roughly 2,000 workers in Horry and Georgetown counties that lived in Marion County, according to Coastal Carolina University economist Don Schunk.

Many council members said the long commute between Marion County and the Grand Strand's hospitality jobs is debilitating to constituents.

Schunk said those who commute to the Grand Strand have hospitality experience, which would likely make them candidates for the facility in Marion, he said.

Marion County had a labor force participation rate of about 51 percent in 2005, meaning half of residents are either working or actively looking for work, Schunk said.

"There is a large pool of potential labor in Marion County that could also be candidates for either, one, the new positions created at the gaming facility or, two, the Grand Strand positions that become vacant as current workers switch to positions at the gaming facility," he said.

Councilmen Allen Floyd and Pearly Britt, the two dissenters, said the complex would bring in money and jobs even with no bingo, and they questioned whether it was a viable business model. Floyd also expressed his moral opposition to gambling.

Councilman Milton Troy responded that the members needed to avoid religious and moral arguments.

"People have asked me to consider 'What would Jesus do?' I don't know what Jesus would do. I know what God did. He gave you free will to make your own decisions," Troy said. "I'm not God. It's your decision. If you don't want to play bingo, don't play bingo."