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    Tribe's casino built without red tape

    No building permit, no site planning, no local oversight and no impact fees were required.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 5, 2003


    photo
    [Times photo: Ken Helle]
    As a sovereign nation, the Seminole Tribe is free of many government encumbrances in building its $100-million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. The 12-story project on Orient Road replaces a tribal gambling hall and is expected to draw five times as many visitors every day. Neighbors are complaining about noise, trash and its impact on traffic.
    TAMPA -- Dignitaries sipped champagne Tuesday while toasting a historic day for the Seminole Tribe: the "topping off" of a 12-story Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, a $100-million project designed to achieve financial self-sufficiency for the tribe.

    It also was a historic day for Hillsborough County.

    The hotel-casino-restaurant complex may be the largest private project built in the county without comprehensive site planning, impact fee requirements, citizen input or local government oversight.

    Because the Seminole Tribe is a sovereign nation, it is exempt from those requirements. The Cordish Co., a Baltimore developer, and Perini-Suitt, a joint venture contractor handling the Hard Rock construction, did not even need to pull a building permit before starting work on the 250-room hotel and 90,000-square-foot casino.

    The tribe intends to pay an estimated $1-million to $3-million to improve and widen Orient Road along the entranceway to the project, said James F. Allen, Seminole gaming operations chief executive. But the tribe will contribute next to nothing for the project's impact on utilities, drainage and public safety.

    "It's pretty amazing that something that size could go up there without impact fees," said Jim Hosler, research director for the Tampa-Hillsborough Planning Commission. "Any other private project would have required extensive site planning and buffering, as well as impact and capacity fees."

    The casino-hotel, scheduled to open in April 2004, replaces a more modest tribal gambling hall on the site. The number of patrons is expected to increase from about 2,000 a day to 10,000.

    Residents in the 300-home East Lake Park subdivision, situated just west of the Seminole reservation, said they believe their property values are falling because of the construction mess and increased traffic congestion.

    "The Indians do what they want to do," said Mike Wells, 55, a retired telephone company and school district employee. "Everyone knows they're making money hand over fist over there. But we get the traffic, the trash, the debris, the noise."

    Wells blames three burglary attempts at his home on hard-luck gamblers and said emergency vehicles will have difficulty getting to many homes when overflow casino traffic lines East Lake streets.

    "When I moved here 22 years ago, the neighborhood was quiet and had a rural feeling," Wells said. "Now who would want to move here? And it can only get worse."

    At about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, an inebriated casino patron drove her car through the chain-link fence next door to Jeri Barron's East Lake home, underscoring her campaign to get the tribe to put up a retaining wall between the Seminole project and the neighborhood.

    "The Indians were here first, and I'm sure the people who stay in the hotel will spend their money here, which will be good for the local economy," Barron said. "But Orient Road is extremely congested, and a wall would definitely improve the neighborhood."

    Wells said East Lake's initial overture to the tribe a year ago for a retaining wall was met with "snickers." The issue remains under discussion.

    Allen said the Hard Rock project is being built to all state and federal building standards and will be an economic boon for all of Hillsborough. He said the now-completed 1,600-car garage should alleviate the parking concerns of East Lake neighbors.

    The hotel-casino expects to employ 2,500 people and will spend more than $35-million annually for goods and services after opening next year, Allen said.

    "We're not cutting any corners," he said. "We want this to be a world-class facility."

    The hotel-casino will feature several restaurants and lounges, a sports bar, a music venue and nightclub, a Hard Rock retail store and a pool-spa complex. For gamblers, the casino will have 1,500 video gambling machines, 55 poker tables and a bingo gallery serving up to 800 patrons.

    The Seminole Tribe pioneered Native American gaming, opening the first Indian casino in Hollywood, Fla., where a $300-million Hard Rock Hotel Casino project is under way. The tribe derives 90 percent of its income from gambling profits, and each of the 2,800 tribal members now receives a monthly dividend of $3,000.

    The Seminoles have sought the right to offer full Las Vegas-style games, such as blackjack and roulette, but have been rebuffed by the state. The issue is now in the hands of the U.S. Department of Interior, which could resolve the impasse with new gaming rules.

    The tribe expects that professional gaming management will erase a legacy of scandal at the Tampa casino.

    Three casino employees were indicted in a bingo-fixing conspiracy in 1991. Three years ago, the National Indian Gaming Commission fined the tribe $3-million for an illegal contract it had with Pan American & Associates, the management team that oversaw the Tampa bingo hall.

    Allen brings to the tribe 23 years of gambling experience as an executive with firms such as the Trump organization, Hilton Hotels and Park Place Entertainment. He is joined by Edward J. Jenkins, a 30-year FBI agent who is the tribe's new director of gambling compliance.

    The Tampa casino ended up at its current location north of Interstate 4 because of the discovery in 1980 of the remains of 140 Seminoles buried in the 1830s at the current site of the Fort Brooke parking garage.

    The Indian remains were reinterred on 81/2 acres near Orient Road, where then-Seminole Chairman James Billie pledged to build and maintain a cultural museum.

    The remains, buried behind the casino construction project, are untouched, Allen said, and will become the site of a Seminole monument. But the cultural museum was torn down to make way for the casino.

    There are no plans to replace it.

    -- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com .

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