By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer
An out-of-state American Indian tribe with ancestral ties to Ohio has big plans for casino-style gambling in this state - plans that could eventually lead them to Clermont County.
The tribe, which is keeping its identity secret, recently proposed locating its first gambling facility in the small town of Botkins, 50 miles north of Dayton.
Bingo manager Pat Bradford checks winner Penny Cmehil of Amelia at the Ripley Rescue Squad Bingo Hall. She says: "If they bring (a casino) in, you might as well close the doors to all of these bingo halls."
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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And Tom Schnippel, a representative for the tribe, says other Ohio sites are part of its plans, though he declined to be specific.
Rumors have swirled for months in Clermont County that one or more tribes is looking for land and might try to open a casino along Ohio 32.
The buzz has grown so intense that Batavia Township trustees passed a resolution stating firm opposition to any such casino. County officials have heard the talk, too, and appear sharply divided over casino-style gambling.
Meanwhile, bingo operators such as Pat Bradford, who runs weekly games in tiny Ripley along the Ohio River, are concerned about the impact Indian gambling would have on their profits. Some people who run charitable bingos in the county say they've talked with members of Indian tribes who are scouting their operations.
But above all the rumors, speculation and concerns is a question: Is it even possible that an Indian group could open a casino, making Ohio the 30th state to join the multibillion-dollar Indian gaming industry?
It would be difficult, officials say, but not impossible. Casino gambling is banned in Ohio, and the state has no federally recognized Indian tribes.
Several tribes, however, are considered indigenous to the state - one of the requirements for federal recognition. Establishing Indian "ancestral lands" here, like those in other states that hold gambling operations, is a slow, complicated process, the first step toward obtaining the property needed for a gambling operation.
It appears some tribes have already tried to take that step. Four groups - Piqua Sept of Ohio Shawnee Indians; Saponi Nation of Ohio; Shawnee Nation, Ohio Blue Creek; and the Lower Eastern Ohio Mekojay Shawnee - have applied to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition in Ohio since 1988, when a federal act legalized Indian gambling.
So far, none has succeeded.
In the Ohio Legislature, attempts to pass a bill that could lead to casino-style gambling have stalled. But another attempt, officials say, could be made this session.
The Indian group Schnippel represents has federal recognition in another state, he says, and plans to apply for such recognition in Ohio.
And while he labels any speculation about a site in Clermont County as "grossly premature," Schnippel admits the tribe is looking.
The very idea of a casino in fast-growing Clermont County, which has grown more suburban while still clinging to its Appalachian roots, has alarmed many, excited some, and surprised everyone.
Charitable bingo operations are used throughout Ohio to finance myriad activities, including municipal services.
A portion of the revenue from Bradford's Sunday and Wednesday night bingos goes to the Ripley Life Squad. The money has turned the once-destitute life squad into a well-equipped, up-to-date rescue unit.
"There are schools, life squads, churches, fire departments, animal rescue groups - associations that have had bingos for 40 or 50 years. This is how they survive," Bradford says.
She got on the phone when she heard rumblings about plans for a casino offering Vegas-style games and high-stakes bingo in Clermont County that could draw gamblers from Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky. But her calls to local and state representatives, friends and fellow bingo operators only turned up more speculation.
"Business is so slow now, because there are so many bingos every night of the week somewhere," Bradford says. "If they bring (a casino) in, you might as well close the doors to all of these bingo halls."
More than 300 American Indian gaming operations have been set up in 29 states, according to the National Indian Gaming Association, a Washington, D.C.-based legislative and public policy group. Those casinos make up less than 10 percent of all U.S. gambling operations, bringing in $12.7 billion in revenue in 2001.
It wasn't until December, when Bradford sat across from a group of American Indians who were visiting another bingo hall, that she started to take the rumors seriously. A private guard noticed the group's vehicle carried Mississippi plates and an emblem of the Choctaw tribe, which operates two casinos there.
A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI), however, denies the tribe is looking to do business in Ohio.
"We are not up there looking to build a casino or anything," says spokeswoman Creda Stewart. "We sell car (stickers) that people with pride put on their vehicles. ... I don't know who was up there."
Efforts to reach other tribes thought to be involved - the Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma - were not successful.On Jan. 31 in Botkins - a town of 1,300 residents - Schnippel, who owns a construction company in Botkins, and a California development company proposed a 10-year plan to about 400 residents that includes an Indian casino and a bingo hall.
The site would be the tribe's largest endeavor, spread across 2acres and seven phases, including a high-end hotel, a conference center, a concert hall, an exhibition hall, an all-weather water park and a golfing facility. It would create as many as 4,000 jobs.
The identity of the tribe was not made public at the tribe's request, says state Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who represents the area and who attended the meeting.
"A couple months ago, I figured it was just talk," he says. "But what was stated was that this developer and this Indian tribe (are) looking at a couple sites in Ohio, as well as in Botkins. Maybe (the Clermont County) site is one of them."
Local officials divided
Talk about Indian gaming has gotten the attention of officials at all levels of government in Clermont County.
Batavia Township trustees went on record first, adopting a November resolution opposing any casino-style gambling.
"The trustees wanted to be proactive and let the public know that they don't support this," says Rex Parsons, township administrator. "We have no other way of opposing this other than informing people that this could possibly happen."
State Rep. Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, says he became aware of the possibility of an Indian casino here about a year ago, but nothing has happened since then.
"The governor needs to be involved and the legislature needs to be involved, and to my knowledge neither has been involved," says Niehaus.
Clermont commission President Bob Proud adamantly opposes any efforts to locate a casino in the county.
"I do not believe it is the type of economic development we want to attract to this county," he says. "I would prefer to offer a different means to attract people to this county."
But Commissioner Mary Walker says she sees nothing wrong with it.
"It's a great revenue source," she says. "It would certainly (financially) help Ohio and Clermont County. A number of states already have casinos and it's only a matter of time before Kentucky has gambling. It seems like Ohio is always the last to do anything."
Newly elected Commissioner Scott Croswell says he would have to weigh all available options.
"I would be against a stand-alone casino," he says. "However, if it were part of a larger development that involved a hotel, high-end restaurants, shopping areas and an entertainment district with a fine arts theater - those kinds of things - I would be willing to consider it."
Most of the speculation about a casino location has centered on land along the boundary of Batavia and Williamsburg townships near the small town of Afton, which sits at the north end of East Fork State Park.
But property records show no sales to Indians or tribal groups, and no one connected with the land could be reached.
Residents see benefits
Nick Ruebel, owner of the Red Barn Flea Market on Haskell Lane in Batavia, isn't put off by talk of a casino.
"It would draw people from different states and different cities," he says. "A casino would need other supporting businesses such as restaurants and other business ... which would employ more people.
"The only reason you go to Batavia now is if you get a speeding ticket and you have to go to court."
E-mail mmccain@enquirer .com
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