ATMORE, Alabama -- With the $240 million gamble on Wind Creek Casino paying off nicely, Poarch Creek Indians are set to spend $29 million on an entertainment development and a health and independent living center on their reservation, according to Tribal Treasurer Robert McGhee.
And that’s not nearly all.
Work continues on a travel center along Interstate 65 and a subdivision in northwest Florida for some of the 3,000 members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
The tribe announced plans in late January to partner with Innisfree Hotels to build a $24 million Hyatt Place Hotel near the Pensacola Airport. It also announced a horse-racing track in Gretna, Fla., last year.
“We came up with a master plan a few years ago,” said McGhee, 42, who also works as the tribe’s governmental relations adviser. “The tribe has priorities, and we decided that those are a health facility with an assisted-living complex and an entertainment district.”
They were to meet last month with architects designing a movie theater with 4 to 8 screens and a bowling alley. “We are excited about that,” he said recently.
Waiting in the wings, McGhee said, are plans already developed to expand the casino, adding another hotel tower and golf course, and another long-discussed plan to build a school.
“The issue of the school has not been decided, but we are constantly looking at the idea,” he said. “It’s a huge investment, and we have to see if there will be enough children to make the program feasible.”
The tribe, which does not make its finances public, a few years ago invested heavily in the casino even as the economy tanked. Some lenders and tribal members were worried about the future of gaming, but money kept rolling in. The tribe said that it paid off its $165 million loan last year, just 2½ years after opening the casino.
“The tribe focused on paying down the debt,” McGhee said. “The gaming industry has exceeded our expectations, to say the least.”
Jim Searcy, executive director of Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance, called the tribe’s operations “an economic driver for our whole region.”
Just having the casino and hotel available when industrial prospects come to the area is a great asset, he said.
“It is impressive to have Wind Creek, and while it is not likely to be a deciding factor on locating here, it is great to have the metropolitan amenity rising from the cotton fields. Anytime we can get people to stop and put money in the local economy, we all benefit.”
A spokesman for Gov. Robert Bentley said last week that his office had no position on the tribe’s plans.
The tribe has unsuccessfully pursued agreements with the last several governors to allow full-scale casino gaming in the state. Now, federal law restricts the tribe to operating electronic bingo machines that are much like slot machines.
But it isn’t all gaming.
In at least 10 businesses or authorities, the tribe employs more than 2,100 people. By year’s end, McGhee said, the tribe will add dozens more jobs. He also said that 90 percent of those employed are not tribal members.
The tribe paid more than $280 million total in wages plus excise and sales taxes from 2008 through 2011, its leaders said. This year, McGhee said, it expects to pay $400 million more.
It operates gaming at 3 casinos in the state, dog tracks in Mobile and Pensacola, the Florida horse track, a convenience store, Muscogee Inn, Muscogee Technology, Magnolia Branch Wildlife Preserve, Premier Family Optical, Perdido River Farms, River Oaks Apartments in Montgomery and a couple of tobacco shops, among other businesses.
The tribe’s annual payroll will hit $42 million by the end of this year, McGhee said. It contributed some $6 million in 2011 to charitable organizations including $3 million paid to local schools.
Tribal members benefit from universal health care and each gets $40,000 to use for educational expenses. McGhee said 500 members are currently taking advantage of the scholarship money.
“My parents weren’t educated,” McGhee said, “but they always wanted me to have an education to fall back on.” McGhee earned degrees from the University of South Alabama, the University of Alabama and Washington University in St. Louis before working for 5 years in Washington, D.C., at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and with the Indian Law Practice Group of Troutman Sanders LLP.
He turned down a teaching position at Harvard University to return to the tribe.
“I always knew I would come back,” McGhee said. “I needed to understand how federal policy impacts the tribe. And we have a lot of the younger generation taking leading roles now. We have five members of the tribal council under the age of 50. We have many council members with master’s degrees, and we have the benefit of the years of experience of council members. That’s part of our values system — valuing wisdom.”
McGhee said the tribe wants outsiders to know who they are, how they came from an isolated group of impoverished Creeks to federal recognition led by his great-grandfather Calvin McGhee.
“We have done our best to show people who we are,” McGhee said. “That is one of our biggest challenges, the lack of understanding about who Poarch Creek Indians are and why we are able to do what we do.”