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Creeks’ new casino hotel changes Atmore landscape

By Garry Mitchell
Atmore, Alabama (AP) 10-08

A 17-story casino hotel being built by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians rises out of the rolling farmlands and pine forests of south Alabama, an eye-catching tower for the stream of travelers on Interstate 65.

To make sure drivers don’t miss the casino exit, a 65-foot-high electronic sign will beckon them to the site, which tribal leaders hope will gain a reputation as a destination resort.

The casino is to be filled with 1,600 electronic bingo games in halls enlivened by the flashing lights and ringing bells of a Las Vegas-style gambling palace. But that kind of high-stakes gambling still isn’t allowed in Alabama – on or off tribal land, at least not yet – a divisive issue for years between state officials and Alabama’s only federally recognized American Indian tribe.

Still, the hotel’s gleaming glass tower looming over the rural landscape has raised expectations that the tribe’s investment will pay off.

“Atmore now has a skyline,” said real estate agent Ann Gordon, whose office is near the hotel. “It’s hard for a small town to change. But we will see a lot of growth.”

She said she expects the tribe’s Wind Creek Casino & Hotel and a city-owned business park planned across Highway 21 from the hotel will create the type of interstate-exit growth familiar around the United States.

“Poarch Creeks’ businesses have provided economic stability to both our tribal members and our neighbors. We have grown to be the largest employer in the county and a major employer in the state,” said Creek Chairman Buford L. Rolin.

Lumber dealer David Swift Sr. said Atmore will still have its rural roots, a slow-paced lifestyle built around farming, livestock, timber and two state prisons, but he expects the area around the casino will become a large commercial center, extending its reach into the town about four miles away.

For some, the development hasn’t been a plus.


John Spence, who has operated Dixie Catfish Shack for 11 years at a site about a mile from the hotel, said the increased traffic on the highway during construction hasn’t helped his restaurant.

But he wasn’t sure why. He said his business may have been hurt by high gas prices and the slumping economy or “it could be people gambling” their money away.

“I hope it picks up,” he said.

The existing Creek gaming center, which has been a smaller scale bingo operation for years, offers dining. But the new hotel’s planned 300-seat restaurant will be a bigger competitor with its expansive buffet and a separate 84-seat upscale dining room.

“You can’t have something that big without making a major impact on a small town our size,” said Mayor Howard Shell. But he expects the increased number of casino customers to provide a lot of economic “fringe benefits” to the city’s restaurants and other businesses.

In Mobile, a legal dispute also has implications for the gambling future of the Creeks, a tribe of about 2,600 that gained its federal recognition in 1984. The Poarch Creeks are descendents of a segment of the original Creek Nation, which once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia.

Alabama Attorney General Troy King has a suit pending in U.S. District Court in Mobile seeking to strike down regulations that allow the U.S. Department of Interior and American Indian tribes to bypass a state’s refusal to negotiate a compact for casino-style gaming. The Creeks’ lawyers have asked that the suit be dismissed.

A Texas case with similar issues also has been litigated and awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that might affect the Alabama tribe.

The legal battle hasn’t stopped the Creeks from replacing their old Creek Bingo Palace with the multimillion-dollar high-rise and planning a sister hotel on tribal land at Wetumpka, near Montgomery, where the tribe operates another electronic bingo casino.

The new Atmore casino on a 35-acre site is expected to open in January, followed by the 236-room hotel in February. A water feature – a small lake – is expected to be completed in June, the final stage of the opening. An amphitheater with seating for 2,000 is planned at the water’s edge.

The Memphis, Tenn.-based Flintco Constructive Services, a privately held American Indian-owned company, is building the hotel in partnership with Martin Construction Inc. in Atmore.

Creek Indian Enterprises construction manager Jim Angus said the project has created about 350 construction jobs. When completed, some 750 workers are expected to operate the complex, working three shifts around the clock.

Latoya Williams-Staples, who works in the casino, said she expects business will pick up because the hotel will be visible “up and down” the interstate. The complex is about 50 miles from both Mobile and Pensacola, Fla.

“It’s a great opportunity for Atmore,” she said.

A manufacturing city split by railroad tracks and home to two state prisons, Atmore has seen its population shrink from 8,046 in 1990 to 7,427 in 2007, as residents relocated for jobs. Hurricane Ivan’s tornadoes ripped through here in 2004, but repairs have given the city a spruced-up look.

“Everybody is excited about the hotel. It will put Atmore on the map,” said Freddie Hobbs, 56, a lifelong resident. “It will help keep young people around.”

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