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Locals support Catawba bingo

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SANTEE, S.C. - The people of Santee and the surrounding area in southern South Carolina support the Catawba Indian Nation in its effort to locate a bingo hall in the county, local leaders explained in a meeting with tribal members Oct. 11.

Among the local leaders present, State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D) told members of the tribe, "The county in general and in particular the town of Santee, we just wanted to bring you all down to share with you how pleased we are to have the Catawba Nation consider bringing this project to Orangeburg county. We have a lot of people here who want the Catawba Nation to come."

Approximately 50 members of the tribe were present at the meeting in the old Santee Outlet Mall. The Catawbas, the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina, have a reservation near Rock Hill.

Orangeburg County Development Commission told members of the tribe in an invitation letter on Oct. 2, "The Orangeburg County and Town of Santee officials and business community leadership would like to extend an invitation to you to attend a meeting in Santee at the site of your proposed Class II bingo gaming facility ?

"The meeting will give you an opportunity to see the facility and hear about the good things going on in our town. We think this is a perfect partnership between Catawba gaming and Santee."

Santee's main industry is tourism, coming off Interstate 95, one of the "busiest highways in the east." According to Hal Johnson, executive director of Orangeburg County Development Commission, the county and town have an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent.

About two months before the meeting, Chief Gilbert Blue told members of the tribe in a letter that U.S. Representative James E. Clyburn (D) has worked with the tribe in getting tribal leaders to notice Santee as a potential site for a second Catawba bingo hall.

In 1996, the Catawba Indian Nation renovated an old shopping mall in Rock Hill to establish its first bingo hall. But under the 1993 land settlement agreements, the tribe was allowed to have two bingo halls in the state, so bingo in Santee would be its second one. Tribal leaders first tried to set up a bingo hall in North Myrtle Beach, but the city council decided not to allow the tribe to build there. The tribe sued the county in 1997, but Federal Judge Cameron Currie upheld the city's resolution to bar the tribe from building a bingo hall.

Since then the tribe has worked with Rep. Clyburn to get a bingo hall in Santee. Catawba leaders would like this hall to be fully regulated under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a move which some state leaders fear would lead to Catawbas setting up a casino. Chief Blue and other leaders say that is not so.

The Rock Hill bingo was established according to the rules set up by the state in the Catawba Indian Claims Settlement Act, under which the tribe 12.5 million dollars. The entire settlement was 50 million dollars, with the federal government paying most of it. Under this act, the state kept jurisdiction over the tribe in gaming operations. The tribe had to obtain a special bingo license and pay bingo taxes to the state Department of Revenue.

Now the tribe wants to get away from this arrangement by putting its second bingo under IGRA regulations. This does not sit well with several state leaders, suggesting that if the Catawbas were allowed to move under the federal government, the tribe will soon have a casino in the state. Tribal lawyer, Jay Bender, has explained that since South Carolina has established a lottery, it has created a way for the Catawba tribe to establish a casino.

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Bender has also said that the state lottery has hurt Catawba bingo. Income from the tribal bingo has dropped, he explained.

Several state lawmakers have come out against the tribe, including Governor Mark Sanford, indicating they are against Indian casinos in the state. Within the period, some people protested the tribal plans at the state capitol in Columbia. However, tribal officials said the protesters were not from Santee, Orangeburg County, or counties surrounding the city.

At the Oct. 11 meeting, John H. Rickenbacker, chairman of the Orangeburg County Council, explained that they made plans for an economic development in 1995 "as a number one priority," because the county had a large unemployment rate.

"So this great project that we are looking forward to fits right into our economic development strategy," he said. He also explained that the seven-member council unanimously passed a resolution in support of Catawba bingo in Santee. "There was not a descending vote." He said the local newspaper conducted a poll and the residents voted in favor of Catawba bingo by 86 percent. Rickenbacker read the resolution and presented it to Assistant Catawba Chief Buck George.

In response, George said, "On behalf of the Catawbas, I want to give the people of Orangeburg County here a thank you for the open arms that you have given us ? We hope that the rest of the state can do the same. We do appreciate the open arms policy you have for us."

Joe Grant, who spoke for Rep. Clyburn, said, "I want you to know that Congressman Clyburn is very happy that you decided to locate your facilities here in Santee. He has been lobbying for you to locate your second facility here since you opened the one in Rock Hill.

"You decided to come here. That is exactly what he wanted for a very long time. He has been trying to bring economic development to Orangeburg County and Santee. He believes this project will do just that. He wanted me to say that this is a great opportunity for government-to-government relationship.

"We have the town of Santee here. We have Orangeburg County. We have the federal government. We have the sovereign nation of Catawba Indians. What's missing is the involvement of the state government, which we hope we will have here very soon. He is proud to have you here ? "

State Senator John W. Matthews Jr. (D), said, "All levels of government support this project and support you in your efforts. I think it's been made clear that from the county legislative delegation, the city administration, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, that we have agreed to support you whole heartedly.

"When you come here, you will not only have a community that is growing, but you will also have a community that will support you in your efforts, because we recognize that your investment in the community will improve the quality of life for a lot of people; a lot of families will benefit from your efforts.

"So on behalf of local government, on behalf of the business community, I want to welcome you to Santee. We are looking forward to working with you in the future. We can assure you that any help or support that you need from local government, state government, county government, we will be there with you and for you."