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Seminole tribe's financial gamble extends to banking

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


It's a Florida conglomerate with the promise of riches that would make a dot-com venture capitalist pant with envy.

The Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, already well established in gambling, is quickly getting involved in another line of work: Banking.

And why not? In heady economic times, it's hard to tell the difference between two businesses that both bet on money.

The tribe's gambling arm is raking in cash and looking at bold expansion plans. This week, Seminole officials and executives of Hard Rock Cafe International revealed a $400-million plan to build casino-hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla.

With all that money rolling in, what better place to put it but the tribe's own bank? That's one reason the Seminoles made a recent $6.4-million offer to buy the tiny Independent Community Bank of Tequesta in Palm Beach County.

Bank president Frederick Martin says the Seminoles are interested in the bank because it would allow them to earn more on their gambling profit and avoid fees charged by other banks. The Tequesta bank has lost money since it opened two years ago.

Nationwide, Indian tribes own or control parts of more than a dozen small banks. In Florida, banking regulators believe the Tequesta deal is the first time the Seminoles have sought control of a state-chartered bank.

But it's not the tribe's first venture into banking.

The Seminoles are one of about a dozen American Indian tribes behind a company called Native American Bancorp. that's buying the small Blackfeet National Bank from the Blackfeet Tribe in Browning, Mont. Each of the tribes has agreed to invest about $1-million in the institution.

Bank officials say the merger will help Blackfeet National, which will operate out of Denver as Native American National Bank, offer more competitive rates and fees for its customers. It also will increase the tribes' borrowing capacity.

Of course, ownership of banks gives American Indian tribes newfound control over their growing wealth from gambling operations and -- more significant -- over where to lend money.

For example, the Foxwood casino in Ledyard, Conn., has annual revenues of more than $1-billion. Cash flow from that casino alone has made Connecticut's Pequot Tribe one of the wealthiest in North America.

That lesson has not been lost on the Seminoles, who are exempt from Florida gambling laws. The tribe is betting that new rules under federal review will allow more Las Vegas-style gambling games (currently prohibited in Florida) anywhere on reservation lands. That includes the newly proposed 200-room Hard Rock Cafe hotel off Orient Road in Hillsborough County, as well as the planned 750-room Hard Rock Cafe Hotel-casino in Hollywood.

Indian officials also hope that their own nationally chartered Native American bank will give the tribes the clout to gain access to billions of dollars earned from leasing land and from court settlements but held in trust by the U.S. government. The bank's backers want the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to be more accountable and hand over much of that money to the Indian tribes.

Native American Bancorp.'s goal is to establish the nation's largest inter-tribal bank by providing large-scale loans nationwide to Indian-owned businesses and investing in non-Indian companies.

Tribes likely to benefit range from the Tlingit and Haida in Alaska to the Utes in Colorado. For the Seminoles, the greater the stake in banking, the bigger the expansion in gambling.

Short takes

Florida developer Al Hoffman is one hot GOP commodity. For starters, he's finance co-chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee for President-elect George W. Bush. That should give Hoffman plenty of access this month to Washington's party scene -- and to Dubya later at the White House. Don't forget Hoffman also served as finance chairman for Bush brother Jeb's gubernatorial campaign in Florida. But Hoffman's not all politics. As head of Bonita Springs-based Watermark Communities Inc., he revealed ambitious plans Thursday to build 11 swank waterfront condominium towers in communities stretching from Naples to Jupiter to Coral Gables. . . .

Barnett Banks' old executives are creeping back into the spotlight. Former Barnett chief Charlie Rice and son Dan have plans to dabble in venture capital. And now former Barnett president Allen Lastinger emerges as a Big Kahuna of fundraising for the University of Florida. Lastinger, capital campaign co-chairman and president of the UF Foundation's board of directors, helped raise a record $850.4-million over five years. . . .

A gargling nightmare? Relatives of four people who died in early 1999 at a Fargo, N.D., hospital recently sued the Tampa-based distributor of a mouthwash allegedly contaminated with a nasty bacteria called Burkholderia cepacia. Tampa's Donovan Industries distributed DawnMist Mouth Wash and other products made by Malaysia-based Hi-City Manufacturing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed the bacteria found in the patients came from the product, and Donovan Industries recalled all the mouthwash in the spring of '99. "Our first big break came in '86 when we broke into the Malaysia market," Donovan chief James Donovan said a few years ago. Well, the quote probably sounded better at the time. . . .

As cold as Tampa Bay feels lately, winter has saved most of its wrath for places such as Buffalo, N.Y., where more than 100 inches of snow have fallen. No wonder The Buffalo News was busy touting the virtues this week of cheap air fares and (somewhat warmer) Florida weather. Among the travel deals: Buffalo to Tampa on US Airways for $49 each way, with a 5 percent discount for ordering online. No word on whether Floridians jumped at such a deal to fly way, way up north.

- Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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