Tahlequah Daily Press

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July 27, 2012

UKB has contingency plan if casino closes

TAHLEQUAH — The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma on Friday announced a contingency plan for employees if its casino has to close down Monday.

In June, the UKB and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt signed an agreement requiring the tribe to pay $2 million in damages and securing federal trust status for land on which the casino is located. The UKB has until July 30 to comply, or it must cease gaming operations.

The Keetoowah Cherokee Casino has about 120 employees, and an additional 75 employees on the administration side are funded by the casino, according to Rod Fourkiller, casino general manager.

“[If the land into trust determination is delayed], we’ll put the employees on [paid] administrative leave, and do a little remodeling and make a few changes,” said Fourkiller. “The employees’ jobs will be secure for a brief time, but we remain optimistic [the land will be placed into trust]. We’re looking forward to Monday and putting this whole issue behind us.”

During Friday’s press conference, UKB Assistant Chief Charles Locust said the tribe’s economic impact for Eastern Oklahoma is about $130 million. While he, too, remains optimistic, he also pointed out closing the casino, even for a brief period, would have an impact on the local economy.

“Of course, our employees fear for their jobs,” said Locust. “One job can affect an entire family in this instance. In this economy, we have children who have moved back home with their parents. One spouse who works for our casino could be providing resources for the entire family.”

Locust said that in addition to providing jobs and entertainment, the casino generates funds for tribal members through scholarships, high school graduation bonuses, elementary school clothing vouchers, elderly assistance and housing assistance for those who do not meet HUD requirements.

“We’re 98 to 99 percent confident the federal government will do what’s appropriate and what is right,” said Locust. “But our agreement with the state of Oklahoma states we will cease operations if no decision is made by Monday, July 30.”

According to documents provided by the UKB, assistance funds disbursed to 2,380 tribal members directly from casino funding from October 2010 to September 2001 totals $643,216.64; and 719 members received $409,663 in educational assistance through college and vo-tech scholarship. Another $80,000 in clothing vouchers was provided to school children.

UKB Chief George Wickliffe said he, too, is confident the land will be placed into trust by the deadline.

“We are confident the agreement made by our council will be upheld,” said Wickliffe. “We still have 72 hours for a decision. Our people deserve it. My words are: It’s going to happen.”

Fourkiller said the support from the community has been overwhelming.

“We have a footprint here,” said Fourkiller. “Many of our customers have said they will play until the doors close.”

Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, who attended Friday’s event, said he supports the UKB’s efforts and understands the impact the casino’s closing could have on the local economy. Nichols is an employee of the UKB.

“My experience with the UKB has shown the tribe to be a generous and involved contributor to many projects, causes and events within our community,” wrote Nichols in a letter of support U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Donald Leverdure. “The [UKB] reports an economic impact of $133 million. This is vital to the local economy with regard to employment opportunities, sales tax revenue, and brings dollars directly and indirectly to the Tahlequah economy. The [UKB] employs approximately 200 people. The closure of their facility would mean that the city would not only lose tax revenue and other economic benefits, but would have nearly 200 additional unemployed individuals in an already weak job market.”

The Cherokee Nation has opposed any land-into-trust agreement the UKB has attempted, as its constitution prohibits any other tribe’s possessing land within its 14-county jurisdiction.

CN Attorney General Todd Hembree indicated, in an earlier report, that if the UKB receives land into trust July 30, the Cherokee Nation is prepared to file appeals July 31.

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