Tampa – Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Hotel patrons got a big surprise Thursday when the Seminole Tribe of Florida opened 104 tables for blackjack and baccarat games at 5 a.m.
So, too, did state officials. Conservative lawmakers have tried to use the courts to block additional gambling on tribal property, and a spokesman for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said that office did not know blackjack and other gambling games would begin Thursday.
The political backdrop meant little at the upscale, 24-hour casino east of Tampa, where players laying USD 10 to USD 500 bets filled most of the new gaming tables by 10:30 a.m. The bright green, felt-topped tables and patrons cheering their luck blended with the colorful poker and gaming machine scene adjacent to the new, 20,000-square-foot section.
The tables were busy despite no advance word or advertising of the opening, which Seminole officials described as a „soft opening.“
„This looks like it is coming along,“ said James Waters, a Tampa developer who likes playing blackjack but lost a little money playing poker and will return another day. „The Hard Rock is beginning to look like some of the gaming places I’ve played out West.“
The increased gaming options will mean significantly more jobs at the casino and comes at a time when most of the economic news in the Tampa Bay area has been about layoffs and bankruptcy filings.
With 1,132 employees hired in recent months for the blackjack games, in jobs ranging from USD 8 an hour to the USD 80,000 to USD 100,000 dealers can earn annually, Hard Rock employment in Tampa has swelled to more than 2,800.
„This is an historic day for the tribe,“ said Jim Allen, chief executive of gaming operations for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, headquartered in Hollywood, Fla., who was in Tampa on Thursday for the opening. „We are incredibly excited. We are creating more than 1,000 new jobs here.“
Allen said the tribe is looking forward to revisiting issues with state officials but declined to provide details of the tribe’s next steps.
Those negotiations will take place among legal representatives of the Seminole Tribe, the state government and possibly the National Indian Gaming Commission in a higher stakes game than those that opened in Tampa.
Conservative legislators from South Florida have challenged the compact that Gov. Charlie Crist signed with the Seminole Tribe last year. The compact would have provided the state with at least USD 100 million annually for 25 years as a share of gaming revenue both from Las Vegas-style slot machines put in operation this year in Florida Seminole casinos and the new blackjack games.
Attorney General Frustrated
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in July that the governor overstepped his authority in signing the compact. The Seminole Tribe, however, contends the compact became federal law Jan. 8.
McCollum is urging lawmakers and the governor to negotiate a new compact.
„I don’t know what to say; I don’t even have words,“ said Sandi Copes, spokeswoman for McCollum. „The general is very frustrated at the fact that they repeatedly said they weren’t going to expedite anything.“
Tribal gaming falls under federal jurisdiction, however, and federal officials have shown little interest in intervening. That leaves McCollum with few options.
„We are not aware of any action the state can take at this point,“ Copes said.
McCollum has reached out to the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Florida, who has not responded with action against the tribe. McCollum might now approach the Middle District U.S. attorney, Copes said.
Part of the rationale for the governor to agree to the compact was that the Seminole Tribe would make payments that otherwise were not required. The tribe this year has paid the state USD 70 million from gaming proceeds.
Allen said Thursday that the payments could swell to USD 300 million to USD 500 million annually as more players visit the casinos, a critical factor for a state struggling with a budget that’s fallen prey to the national economy and conservative taxing decisions in recent years.
‚This Is Blatantly Illegal Activity‘
Asked about the economic ramifications of trying to coerce the Seminoles into scaling back, Copes said it’s a nonissue.
„This is blatantly illegal activity,“ she said. „There’s no need for a policy debate when there is illegal activity – not only in condensed form, but expanding.“
Crist would not comment on whether the tribe acted prematurely.
„I just got briefed about it, and my reaction is we’ll look forward to working with the Legislature to see if we can reach a compact,“ Crist said.
Sean Pensoneau, spokesman for the National Indian Gaming Commission, said the commission is still analyzing the compact’s status in light of the state Supreme Court’s decision. The tribe recently sent the commission an „inch-thick“ written response to the commission’s request for input on the compact and the tribe’s gaming plans, he said.
That response was not available to the media Thursday, as commission staff were still reviewing and clearing it for public consumption. Asked whether the tribe informed the commission of its plans to offer table games, Pensoneau said, „We were aware of that possibility.“