Tribe: Casino could happen with, without city commission approval

The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians tribe is proposing to build a casino on 5.4 acres of property at 730 S. 9th. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

ENID, Okla. — A proposed United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians casino could be opened in Enid even if the city commission does not give its approval.

While the tribe does not need the city's support to move forward, it wants it, tribal Attorney General Klint A. Cowan told Enid City Commission during a study session meeting Tuesday.

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Without support from the city, the tribe still can go ahead and seek to have the land placed into trust, he said.

"It's kind of what happened in Guymon with the Shawnee Tribe," Cowan said, adding some city councilors there supported a casino, and some were against it. "The Shawnee tribe went ahead with their application and ultimately got the Interior Department to take land in Guymon in trust for them, on which they can open a casino now. 

"The other important process, or step in the process, is that the governor of Oklahoma has to agree that this land can be taken into trust for gaming purposes. If the governor doesn't consent, then it won't happen. UKB just wants the city's support so we can go to the governor and ask the governor, 'You know, the local community supports it, we'd like you to consent to the land being taken in trust.'"

The governor could approve of the land being taken into trust without community support, as was done in Guymon, he said.

Randall Hendrix, executive director for the UKB Corporate Board, said the first step in the process toward opening the proposed casino, at 730 S. 9th, is getting approval from the city commission. 

The process also includes submitting an application to the Department of Interior to place the land in trust, environmental analysis and being in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Benefits proposed

With the proposed 20,000-square-foot casino featuring class two and class three games — including Vegas-style slot machines, table games such as blackjack and poker and ball and dice games such as craps and roulette — the tribe would agree to inject $12 million into the city over seven years, and also has agreed to set up a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement, Hendrix said.

The payment would occur every month, based on proceedings from the casino, and would be for a term of 10 years. It could then be renegotiated with possibly a cost of living increase, he said.

Cowan explained the tribe is not subject to state or city sales tax, or any taxes, because it’s a sovereign entity. However, it can agree with the city to pay a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or pay some money through contract law.

"There are ways for the tribe, without paying taxes, to still contribute to the Enid community," he said.

There is no guarantee after 10 years that the tribe will continue to pay anything, Ward 3 Commissioner Ben Ezzell said.

Cowan said that is technically true, however, there is an incentive to be good neighbors. 

"They're not going to have their own police department, firefighters, hospitals around the casino. They're going to be dependent on the city of Enid for that, and they're going to want to make sure that you all are happy with the situation so that that's not interrupted," he said.

There's no requirement that the city provide fire or police services in tribal jurisdiction, he said.

"The tribe would want to make sure that that continues," Cowan said.

There is leverage right now in crafting an agreement the city is comfortable with, he said.

Once the casino is up and running, it's not subject to municipal code, and the police department cannot walk in and arrest someone absent some other mutuality, Ezzell noted.

"It sounds like this (agreement) is our only shot," he said.

Cowan said he does not disagree.

"It's true. The tribe is a sovereign entity, and it would have sovereign jurisdiction over those lands, and if it wanted to tell the city for whatever reason to go take a hike, then you could say, 'Well, we're not providing you services anymore,' and see if the casino could continue to function like that," he said.

Cowan said he's aware of a lot of cities that work with casinos, and they work together to keep one another happy. The contract could at least protect the city for 10 to 20 years.

Mayor Bill Shewey asked what would happen to the contract if the tribe decided to close the casino in the future.

Cowan said that would be dealt with in the contract. 

"We could build some sort of agreement into the contract that we'd have to pay a parachute payment or something if we decide to close this casino within so many years. That's just an example," he said.

Despite being a sovereign entity, the tribe still is subject to contract law, Cowan said. The city can sue or go after money owed if the tribe breaks the contract.

When it comes to public safety, the tribe would like to look at cross deputization agreements, hiring retired and off-duty law enforcement, fire services with Enid Fire Department and the building being brought up to fire code, Hendrix said.

Assistant Chief Jamie Thompson said the tribe has put in stoplights in Tahlequah — where the tribe's only casino has been shuttered in litigation — and other things beyond the in lieu of tax agreement it had there.

"We want to have a business here. We want to partner with the city. We're here as any business venture, we're here to make money, and if we don't make money, we can't pay that tax or that almost $12 million infrastructure we want to inject into you," he said. "If we get this city's blessing, we can do the things that we saw here tonight. We could come here with a phase two, and maybe enhance later on, but first we've got to come here, like any business, and start generating some income."

Ward 5 Commissioner Tammy Wilson asked about aboriginal water rights mentioned in a slide of the presentation made Tuesday.

Since Enid was part of the aboriginal reservation, the tribe has aboriginal water rights in the area, Thompson said.

"I understand that there's some concerns about water in this area out here, and we might be able to get involved in that in some form or fashion because we'd be out here, obviously, using water," he said.

Following the meeting, Lisa Liebl, spokeswoman for the UKB tribe, said corporate social responsibility is a critical component of the UKB's plan.

"Their hope is (to) be welcomed in Enid so they can be a community contributor: from food drives, to providing shelter during severe weather, donating books to the library to purchasing sporting equipment for after-school programs," she said.

Ezzell expressed he is not in favor of the proposed casino.

"I don't think the benefits you provide to my community, even at $12 million over seven years, are remotely close to what you will cost my community. It's a fairly black-and-white issue to me, you don't bring net positives," he said.

It may be good for the city of Enid budget, but not for the community as a whole, Ezzell said.

Tribe approached by developers

The tribe was approached by a group of developers — Garfield Investment Holdings, from the Enid area — about putting a casino in town, Thompson said.

"They said, 'Hey, we've got a piece of property here, we've purchased, it's free and clear ... would you all consider coming and putting a casino in there?' That's how this thing started," he said.

Thompson said he is not at liberty to say who is part of the group until contracts are being signed.

After the meeting, Liebl clarified the property proposed for the casino is an LLC owned by Enid resident Randy Miller.

She said the tribe is not pursuing the property on the corner of 9th and Garriott — where the Dexeus building at 825 E. Garriott is located — for trust purposes.

"It is looking at contiguous properties to be owned in fee simple. That property is one of those properties," Liebl said.

That property is not owned by Garfield Investment Holdings, she said.

During the public comment portion of the regular meeting, following the study session, Diane Levesque objected to not knowing who is behind the Garfield Investment Holdings group.

"Since I'm in a gambling mood right now, I'm going to bet a stack of chips that one of them has the name of Vanhooser," she said. 

On Wednesday, former Ward 6 City Commissioner David Vanhooser said he is not a part of Garfield Investment Holdings.

"That is not me," he said. "The only property that I do, in fact, own over there is that Enid Health Center building, which I've owned forever."

Vanhooser said he has heard nothing about the casino since he left the commission and moved out of town.

City charter prohibits gambling

Enid's city charter has a section prohibiting gambling.

Through it, the city can suppress gambling houses and punish keepers of gambling houses and poolrooms and all people who play cards or games of chance of any kind.

“I imagine that it’s the intention of the tribe that they would have trust land,” City Attorney Carol Lahman said, adding it would be the tribe’s sovereign land. “If that occurs … it’s part of our community, but it’s not part of the city that is governed by the charter, or — for that matter — Oklahoma law. It would only be governed by their own law and federal law.”

The tribe has not yet purchased the land, she said.

"Everybody agrees, the land has to be in trust before a casino is put in," Lahman said. "Really it has very little to do with the city, other than the fact, as we heard last night, that if the city would do a resolution or a letter that says we're for it, that would help the Department of Interior make a determination and might affect the governor."

It's not a violation of the charter to discuss a casino coming to Enid, she said.

"Even though the charter says the city can regulate casinos, the city is not going to regulate people talking about casinos. Just having something on the agenda to talk about it, we haven't violated the charter," Lahman said.

No action was taken in the study session, as those meetings are for discussion.

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Involved in news reporting for about 15 years, I've been with the Enid News & Eagle since 2014, when my family moved to Enid to be on the family farm.

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