St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Raising the stakes

The Seminole Tribe steps "into the new millennium" with its $100-million gaming facility.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 18, 2003

TAMPA - It suddenly looked a lot like Las Vegas on Tuesday as patrons poured into the fluorescent interior of the $100-million Seminole Hard Rock Casino and began sliding dollar bills into flickering video slot machines.

Dealers crisply shuffled cards for the first poker players. Waitresses in hot pants and halter tops took drink orders. Dozens of globed surveillance cameras peered down from the lavender and gold-lit ceilings. A cigarette girl, mindful that antismoking laws don't apply to sovereign Indian nations, hawked smokes at $4 a pack.

At Big Joe's Sports Bar, named after a 14-foot gator that lived and died on the Tampa reservation, fans sat at a granite-top bar with inlaid gambling machines and watched sporting events on 13 large-screen TVs. At Floyd's night club, customers found themselves surrounded by mosaic tile, stained glass and $15 entrees at tables that could be moved after dark for a dance band called Southtown Fever.

"I think when the tribe decided to build a first-class facility, they stepped into the new millennium," said James Allen, CEO of Seminole gambling operations. "They've gone from what is basically a Butler building to this, a casino that is a world-class entertainment facility."

The 45,000-square-foot first phase of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino opened Tuesday afternoon to showcase 810 video gambling machines, 28 poker tables and a bingo hall with a capacity for 800. A 1,600-space parking garage is complete, and construction continues on the 12-story, 250-room hotel that will open next year with several restaurants, a pool and a spa.

In a few days, the pre-fab building that has housed the old Seminole Bingo Casino will be demolished to make way for the next phase of the Hard Rock Casino. At the same time, a history of questionable casino operations in Tampa will give way to a commitment to professional management, tribal officials say.

When the tribe opened its Tampa casino in 1982, it ceded control to non-tribal members, a management company called Pan American & Associates. The company was paid $26-million to operate the Seminole gambling halls in Tampa and Immokalee in 1996-97.

In Tampa, eight people, including three casino employees, were convicted of fixing bingo games under Pan American's watch.

In Immokalee, the National Indian Gaming Commission found in 2000 that Pan American had been operating with an illegal contract and fined the tribe $3-million.

The contract had never been submitted for federal approval, apparently because of fears about a background check involving Pan American boss Jim Clare. Clare was arrested in 1962, when he was a substitute letter carrier in Houston, and charged with stealing $90 from an envelope addressed to a society for crippled children.

"We messed up things for a while," Seminole general counsel Jim Shore said Tuesday. "But I think now we are going to a new professionalism."

Allen brings to the tribe 23 years of experience, including executive stints with the Trump Organization, Hilton Hotels and Park Place Entertainment. He also served on a New Jersey task force on gambling regulation.

Edward J. Jenkins, who now oversees compliance and regulations at Seminole casinos, is a 30-year FBI agent who rose to head the bureau's Las Vegas office. He later worked as head of corporate security for Caesars casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe.

In Pan American's day, police complained about the absence of cameras in the casino counting rooms, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement warned that tribal casinos were susceptible to skimming.

Things have changed. The Tampa casino now uses 380 surveillance cameras, a security staff of 71, currency counting machines and a sophisticated "mantrap," which denies entrance into the cash counting room unless gaming commission procedures are followed.

Allen estimates the opening of Phase I of the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa will increase Tampa revenues for the tribe by 20 percent and accommodate as many as 10,000 patrons a day. Completion of phase II, essentially doubling the size of the casino by next spring, should increase profits by 50 percent, he said.

The tribal treasury will also grow in the spring of 2004, after it opens the $200-million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

The tribe brings in more than $300-million in profits with its casinos already, enabling each of the 2,900 tribal members to receive a $36,000 dividend annually.

Where will additional gambling profits go?

"Housing is still a big problem for us," Shore said. "We're running out of room in Hollywood, and a lot of places in Big Cypress and Immokalee are rundown. We also need to better our educational facilities. After that, we might look at increasing dividends."

Not everyone welcomes the Seminole expansion in Tampa.

"It stands to reason that Orient Road, which is two lanes and already over-impacted, is just going to get worse," said Richard Dakin, head of several neighborhood groups concerned about noise and traffic near the Florida State Fairgrounds. "It's mind-boggling to think what it's going to be like."

Allen said the tribe intends to alleviate traffic problems at the casino entrance by constructing a series of turn and acceleration lanes on Orient Road at a cost of nearly $3-million. He also said the tribe will begin construction in the fall on a wall to shield Orient Road homes from the casino.

Several hundred tribal members traveled to Tampa to enjoy a buffet lunch and take part in the casino grand opening festivities Tuesday. Among them was Howard Tommie, the former Seminole chairman who pioneered Native American Gaming in the United States.

It was Tommie who came up with the idea of setting up a high-stakes bingo hall on the Hollywood reservation in 1979, a brainstorm that vaulted the Seminoles to new prosperity and was copied by tribes across the country.

"In those days, we did not have the liquid assets we needed to buy food and other items we needed," Tommie said Tuesday, leaning on a cane. "The reason we did this, the reason we're here now, was to meet the needs of the people on the reservation."

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

Construction continues on the 12-story, 250-room hotel that will open next year. The 45,000-square-foot first phase includes:

810 video gambling machines.

28 poker tables.

An 800-capacity bingo hall.

380 surveillance cameras and a security staff of 71.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.