Oklahoma casino could soon open doors amid protest

Broken Arrow, Oklahoma (AP) April 2012
By Justin Juozapavicius

A tiny Oklahoma Indian tribe of fewer than 450 members could partly open a casino in this Tulsa suburb by the end of the month despite protest from thousands of residents, a pending state lawsuit seeking to stop the building and permission from a national gaming organization.

The Kialegee Tribal Town, headquartered in Wetumka in southeastern Oklahoma, broke ground on the 20-acre site near the Creek Turnpike late last year and has trucked in several pre-fabricated buildings in recent weeks to temporarily house the Red Clay Casino. When it opens, the gaming center will be among several larger casinos already operating in Tulsa County – the closest is about 10 miles away from the site.  

The casino quickly drew the ire of residents, pastors and school administrators, who fear the tribe is trying to force the development on the conservative bedroom community of 99,000.

Opponents say the casino will only be a few blocks from the future site of an elementary school and pre-kindergarten center and worry it could attract a flurry of criminal activity to the area. More than 10,000 people have also signed a petition to keep the casino out.

The facility is located several blocks from an 80-acre parcel purchased by the district for a new elementary school and pre-kindergarten center, where nearly 1,000 students are expected to attend when the buildings open in the fall of 2013. Dozens of angered parents have lobbied the district to oppose the casino because of the proximity and safety concerns, such as inadequate roads and crosswalks to accommodate the increased traffic.

In February, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt sued the tribe in Tulsa federal court, accusing it of moving ahead with construction without obtaining federal approval to lease the property.

“No one, tribal or otherwise, is above state or federal laws,” Pruitt said in a statement. “The Kialegees do not have the authority to pick and choose which steps to follow in the federal or state approval process of establishing casinos.” A hearing is set for May 16.

“It’s alarming to me that with so much opposition, they would continue to move forward at such a rapid pace,” said resident Seth Spreiter, member of the group Broken Arrow Citizens Against Neighborhood Gaming. “To me, it honestly feels like they are trying to get the casino in operation, thinking that once they get the doors open, it will be much harder to shut them down.”

The land is currently owned by two sisters who have attempted to transfer their parcel to the tribe, but a district judge has refused to approve the transaction, deferring instead to the federal government to determine whether the land can be leased. The National Indian Gaming Commission, which decides whether the land in question can be used by the tribe for a casino, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Tribal leaders and a Washington D.C.-based attorney representing the casino development group did not return calls seeking comment.

In a statement issued days after residents discovered that construction had begun, tribal leader Tiger Hobia said the Kialegee have kept the federal government and the city up to date on the casino plans. Hobia also claimed that the casino is necessary because the tribe lacks enough resources to fund programs that serve its members. On a website promoting the casino, the tribe estimated the facility will employ up to 120 people and have a $250 million economic impact on the city.

Like many local politicians who have expressed reservations about the project, Broken Arrow Mayor Mike Lester is growing tired of waiting on Washington.

“The general sense we received from our meetings (with the gaming commission) is it’s a process,” Lester said. “I really got the indication they would provide us an answer fairly soon, but we’re almost a month out from that meeting.”

Chris Buskirk, pastor at Abiding Harvest United Methodist Church – located a few hundred feet near the casino site – accused the tribe of pushing ahead with the project without any sense of apprehension that it might lack the credentials to do so.

“I want to be a champion of our Indian brothers and sisters, but there seems to be a swashbuckling attitude of entitlement,” he said. “It seems out of step to me. It seems odd that people who have experienced so much oppression and mistreatment are so callous to ignore that when they are participating in it themselves.”

Buskirk, whose church is home to a gambling addiction recovery group, said what will be a “grand, money-making opportunity for some” could result in “destruction” for others.

Resident DeEtta Hughes, who lives within a mile of the building site, said members of the opposition group are still hopeful the casino can be stopped.

“Casinos do not need to be in communities across from schools and churches and homes,” she said. “There are more than 100 casinos in the state of Oklahoma – we don’t need any more.”