Feds remove barrier to Choctaw casino

Pascagoula, Mississippi (AP) June 2011

A federal policy change could remove a key barrier that prevented a Choctaw casino from opening in Jackson County.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk announced this week that he has rescinded a 2008 memorandum that essentially prevented off-reservation casinos.

The Sun Herald reports that Echo Hawk said the memorandum was unnecessary and “issued without the benefit of tribal consultation.”

The Mississippi Band of Choctaws applied in 2005 to operate a casino resort and other business on 61 acres off Mississippi 57.  In 2008, then-assistant secretary Carl J. Artman said in a letter to Choctaw Chief Beasley Denson that the proposed site was too far from their reservations.

The policy change is no guarantee the casino will be built. Many residents oppose it, as does Gov. Haley Barbour.

The Choctaws said the site in Jackson County was chosen principally for its proximity to Interstate 10. The property is approximately 175 miles from the Tribe’s principal reservation and too far for commuting.

“The Department is concerned that approval of this application would not support the option for tribal members to live on their existing reservation,” the letter said.

The Choctaws did not return calls for comment.

“I thought it was a done deal,” said Eleanor “Cissy” Jordan, a spokeswoman for a group of Jackson County residents who opposed the Choctaw casino in 2006 and 2007. The Jackson Countians Against Choctaw Gaming pushed for a non-binding referendum on the ballot in November 2007 and voters turned down the casino by a 60 percent vote.

“Certainly the residents of Jackson County have spoken – loudly,” she said. “I’m sure that there will be a lot of opposition to it.”

Jackson County Supervisor John McKay, in whose district the previous proposed casino lies, said he learned recently of the change in the Interior Department policy. He doesn’t think the attitude of the community has changed since the referendum in 2007.

“I still believe the residents of Ocean Springs are 100 percent against it,” McKay said.

According to an Interior Department advisory, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the department’s regulations require Indian tribes meet several requirements to operate an off-reservation casino. The tribe must have land in trust by the Interior Department for the benefit of the tribe. The off-reservation must be in the best interest of the tribe and not be detrimental to the surrounding community. During that stage of determination, public comment is sought and considered. The governor must concur and the tribe must enter into a compact with the state.

Barbour, who opposed the Choctaw casino, is in the last year of his term.

McKay said the county will follow whatever rules are put in place by the federal government.

“I don’t look for anything to happen anytime soon,” he said.

The tribe also scaled back operation of one of its two casinos in 2009. It has since opened a slot parlor in Jones County.

The casino proposal in Jackson County called for a hotel, meeting space and other amenities.

“At some time in the future it might pop up again,” McKay said.