NORMAN, Okla. - Although Indian gaming remains controversial, states such as Oklahoma are increasingly turning to tribal casinos to bolster state economies. According to the National Indian Gaming Association, Indian gaming generates some $1 billion annually for states through employee income, payroll, vendor taxes and revenue sharing agreements.
Some experts predict that by 2009, the tribes in Oklahoma will be the major employers in the state.
Including the state lottery, in 2006 Oklahoma's gaming industry took in an average of $617.87 per capita, nearly three times higher than in 2003, according to the North American Gaming Almanac. State per capita income increased nearly 23 percent between 2003 and 2006.
Nationwide, nearly 400 Indian casinos have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. More than 100 of those casinos are located in Oklahoma, making the state's Indian gaming revenue the third largest in the nation. Thirty of Oklahoma's 38 tribes participate in Class II casino gaming or off-track betting.
The state has also approved ''racinos,'' facilities that combine racetracks and electronic games. In addition to revenue payments to the state, racinos also pay tributes to racing organizations such as the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association. These revenues are expected to top $9 million annually in the next few years.
Oklahoma's first Indian racino, Blue Ribbon Downs, is owned and operated by the Choctaw Nation, a tribe that also operates nearly a dozen casinos. The Choctaws invested some $2 million in this state of the art facility, which also features live horse racing, reel games and fine dining.
The Chickasaw Nation, with 17 casinos and nearly 6,000 employees throughout all of its ventures, and the Cherokee Nation, with seven casinos and nearly 4,000 workers in its enterprises, are two of the state's largest employers. These dynamic tribes are engaging in new ventures and will employ more workers as they expand.
''We are always looking for opportunities to partner with the state on various economic development projects because it gives Oklahoma the edge over other states,'' said Brian Campbell, administrator for the Chickasaw Division of Commerce. ''The end result provides benefits for Oklahoma and Chickasaw citizens.''
Last year, the Cherokee Nation, which is constructing a $125 million hotel and casino, paid the state $16.3 million, a direct boost to public education and the state's horse racing industry. A recent impact study by the Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce estimates that Cherokee Casino Resort will have an annual economic impact of $52.9 million.
David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, said, ''We expect both the economic impact and money for Oklahoma schools to keep growing.''
The Chickasaw Nation, owners of the state's two largest casinos, WinStar and Riverwind, engaged 44 contractors - about half from Oklahoma - in building Riverwind in the town of Goldsby. While operations such as these are spawning growth in state employment, tribal business planners are now sharpening their focus to include a more complete entertainment package.
Winstar Golf opened in August 2006, attracting attention from golfers across Oklahoma and Texas. The Chickasaws are now planning to add RV parks and other amenities to some of their facilities.
Oklahoma ranks third in the nation in overall gaming revenues, according to the North American Gaming Almanac.
Revamping casinos in Oklahoma to create a more affordable travel destination along the lines of vacation hotspot Las Vegas is a new focus for the tribal casino industry. Future ventures are being planned with an eye toward multiple attractions such as golf, swimming, resorts, spas, live entertainment, convention and meeting facilities, and family amenities.
''We are tripling the size of Cherokee Casino Resort in Catoosa to add an events center, spa, 21-story hotel, more nightclubs and dining. Our most notable new restaurant will be a Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill. There will be something for people of all ages,'' Stewart said.
Reinventing Oklahoma as an exciting place to visit will positively affect the state's economy in other ways as well.
''We're bringing in tourism dollars that weren't here before,'' Stewart said. ''Many out-of-state conventions are now choosing Tulsa because of its proximity to casinos.''
Industries that would also benefit include construction and maintenance services, real estate development, education and training facilities, tourism and satellite support services.
''Gaming revenues have a ripple effect in the economy with the increase in revenue for vendors and disposable income of employees,'' Stewart said. ''Capital investments by the tribes increase land values in surrounding areas and investment opportunities for real estate developers and local business. For the cities and counties, this creates a larger tax base and increased sales and real estate taxes.''
Tribal development also sustains important state infrastructure such as fire and emergency services, water, utility and road services.
The Chickasaw Nation, in partnership with Multimedia Games, constructed a $1.7 million sewage treatment plant for Goldsby and a $2.1 million water tower for Newcastle. Improved infrastructure in both towns will reap dividends for all of McClain County, according to the July 2006 Indian Gaming magazine.
According to Campbell, ''It makes sense for us to be partners and good neighbors with communities where we have built facilities. We know they appreciate the job opportunities we bring, the amenities we provide for expanding tourist traffic in their areas. But in a few instances, we've gone further and provided critical infrastructure, which has made all the difference to the area's ability to grow.''
The economic development tribes undertake in depressed areas may also help ease state welfare burdens. In the past few months, the Chickasaw Nation has held ribbon-cutting ceremonies at three newly constructed facilities: Tishomingo Wellness Center, Marshall County Chickasaw Community Center and the Ada Community Center - facilities that benefit the entire community.
New educational opportunities are also being created. Oklahoma State University's School of Hospitality is now one of the most popular career program choices in the state.
Approximately 6 percent of all current gaming revenues in the state help support education in Oklahoma. Approximately $30 million in exclusivity fees were collected by the state in 2006.
Opponents of Indian gaming in the state perceive a rise in compulsive gambling behavior. The Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling recently reported that both the numbers of problem gamblers and treatment specialists in the state has risen in recent years.
Yet, they admit that while casinos provide opportunities for gambling, they do not in themselves create the problem. Oklahoma legislators reserve $750,000 annually from gaming proceeds to address the problem. Tribes help, too. The Chickasaw Nation is a founding member of the association. The Cherokee Nation introduced the ''Play Smart'' program, placing information in various places around the casino that shows players how to get help.
Overall, Indian gaming has played a winning hand in Oklahoma's economy.
''It's evident that gaming is still increasing in its acceptance across the state,'' Stewart said. ''We're now seen as a very important industry in Oklahoma, one that's growing quickly and employing a lot of people. The citizens of Oklahoma see how important that is.''