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Seminoles enjoy a year of dazzling growth globally and at home

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - In early December, the Sheridan Technical Center, an accredited vocational school in Hollywood, Fla., announced a new course to teach students how to fix Las Vegas-style slot machines.

The announcement came just weeks after the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Gov. Charlie Crist signed a gaming compact that will add 7,000 slot machines to the area - and the potential for hundreds of jobs for qualified maintenance and repair technicians.

On Nov. 14, Seminole Tribal Chairman Mitchell Cypress and Crist signed a 25-year gaming compact that gives the tribe the exclusive right to operate Las Vegas-style slot machines on tribal lands in Florida.

The tribe is headquartered in Hollywood, Fla. Most of its 3,300 members live on or near the tribe's 100,000 acres of reservation land. The tribe offers eco-tours of the Everglades, a Native village that features deep water alligator wrestling and a wildlife presentation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (''a place to learn'') Museum, an RV resort, campgrounds and hunting adventures. But most of its revenues come from its seven casinos on its six noncontiguous reservations, including two Hard Rock casinos in Miami and Tampa.

The Seminoles, who trail-blazed high-stakes bingo in Indian country back in the 1970s, run one of the most successful gaming operations in the world, even though the tribe has been restricted to Class II gaming. Under the new compact, the tribe plans to convert its 7,000-plus Class II gaming machines into slots.

The seven casinos, plus the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming, owned by Florida's other indigenous tribe, earned $1.56 billion last year, a 21.5 percent increase over the previous year's earnings, according to the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report by Los Angeles-based economist Alan Meister.

The Seminoles currently employ more than 2,000 non-Indians, purchase more than $24 million a year in goods and services from more than 850 Florida vendors, and pay $3.5 million in federal payroll taxes, according to the tribe's Web site, www.seminoletribe.com.

The tribal-state gaming compact was a sweet success for the Seminoles, who had sought such an agreement for almost two decades only to be blocked by former governors and other opponents.

''I just wanted to go ahead and thank God for watching over the Seminole people and bringing the people and the state together to provide education for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and also secure the future of our young generation and our grandchildren and Seminole tribal people,'' Cypress said at the compact signing ceremony, praising Crist for being ''the first governor who ever listened to what we wanted to do.''

The deal was sealed one day before a deadline imposed by the Interior Department, which oversees the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, would have allowed the tribe to operate slot machines on tribal lands without any revenue-sharing with the state.

The compact gives the tribe the exclusive right to operate slot machines and card games at its seven casinos in Florida, while barring competing casinos from opening anywhere in the state outside of south Florida's Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

A 2004 constitutional amendment allowed local votes on slot machines at pari-mutuel locations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Miami-Dade voters rejected the idea, but Broward permitted 6,000 slot machines at tracks and jai-alai frontons.

Under the IGRA, the tribe is entitled to own and operate gaming facilities to the same level of gaming allowed in a state.

There is no estimate on how profitable the new venture will be for the tribe, but the state will receive at least $2.5 billion over the next 25 years. As soon as the federal government approves the contract, the tribe will pay the state of Florida $50 million. After that, the state will get guaranteed minimum annual payments of $100 million a year. Starting in the third year of operation, the state will receive between 10 and 25 percent of the gaming revenue, based on how much money the tribe takes in.

Interior has until Dec. 29 to approve or reject the compact.

But opponents took action against the compact in a constitutional power struggle within days of its signing.

On Nov. 19, the Florida House of Representatives and Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, filed a petition that asks the court to prevent Crist from permitting new slot machines for the Seminoles without the Legislature's approval.

The House and Rubio maintain the agreement violates the Florida Constitution's separation of powers clause and encroaches on the Legislature's law and policy-making authority.

The tribe and the governor asked the court on Dec. 3 to deny the Florida House of Representatives' request. Oral arguments have been scheduled for Jan. 29.

If the court nullifies the agreement, the tribe will be able to operate slots under Interior's authority without sharing revenues with the state.

While the compact was a huge win, earlier in the year, the tribe made its debut in the global marketplace with its $965 million purchase of Hard Rock International.

In March 2007, the tribe finalized its $965 million purchase of Hard Rock International in what is believed to be the first major acquisition of an international corporation by an American Indian tribe.

The purchase reflected the growing economic power and prominence of the Seminoles and other Native tribes in the global marketplace.

The purchase included a network of 124 signature Hard Rock Cafes in 46 countries, and the world's largest collection of rock memorabilia - around 70,000 items.

With the purchase of Hard Rock International, the tribe acquired a total of 68bcompany-owned Hard Rock Cafe restaurants and retail stores in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Puerto Rico. In addition, the tribe acquired licensing or franchise agreements for another 56 restaurants and five hotels, plus Hard Rock Live performance venues.

In July, the tribe announced plans to double the number of Hard Rock cafes to about 250 and increase the number of hotels to 90.