The contentious debate about a Choctaw casino in Jackson County headlined the Southern Gaming Summit's opening day. Convention delegates were told that getting the federal government's permission for that casino was far from a guarantee.
What they heard during a panel discussion about tribal casinos was that the secretary of the Department of the Interior doesn't favor off-reservation gaming. And that's what the Jackson County proposal is. The Choctaws are trying to build a resort on Highway 57 land they own 230 miles from their Neshoba County home.
Casino attorney Dan McDaniel says that proposal is simply bad policy.
"In my personal opinion, if you put that casino there, it would be disastrous for Jackson County and Harrison County," McDaniel said during his opening comments at the summit.
McDaniel sat on the panel, because the attorney represents Harrison County casinos.
"I would challenge anyone whether on this panel, or in this audience, to tell me how this is fair to the citizens of this state and this area," he said.
Many of the people in the audience were members of tribes with casinos.
A total of 35 tribes around the U.S. have applications pending at the Department of the Interior for off-reservation gaming approval. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians submitted one of the off-reservation applications for a 58 acre property in Jackson County. However, according to the Department of the Interior's George Skibine, "This one isn't very close to coming to Washington for a decision."
Skibine's agency must ratify any off-gaming requests. He said the test for off-reservation approval is one, the casino is in the best interest of the tribe; two, it's not detrimental to the surrounding community; and three, it gets the governor's okay. In the past, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has said he opposed casinos expanding beyond counties where they're already legal.
According to the National Indian Gaming Association, in 19 years, just three tribes have gotten off-reservation approval. And now, with the Department of the Interior not in favor of off-reservation gaming, Skibine believes, "The forecast is gloomy."
In the audience were members of the Choctaw Indians who work at their casino resort in Neshoba County. They didn't speak. So Jess Green, an attorney, and a representative of an Oklahoma tribe stood up and spoke on their behalf.
"When the tribes in your area make money, every penny of that money gets spent," Green said. "And it gets spent in the local economy."
In an earlier panel discussion, the IP Casino Resort and Spa's general manager told convention delegates the threat of Indian gaming in Jackson County has several developers in a wait and see mode until the issue is resolved.
A referendum on the Choctaw's proposed Jackson County casino site will be held this November.