Indian Tribe Looks to Monroe, Ohio, for New Casino

MONROE, Ohio -- A Native American tribe, searching to anchor a $250 million casino and entertainment complex in southwest Ohio, has turned its plans away from Middletown to this small financially, struggling community along busy Interstate 75.

Though casino gambling is not permitted by Ohio law, representatives for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma envision a complex that could generate millions of dollars in development and thousands of jobs that could be a financial boon for the city of Monroe and the Butler and Warren county governments.

Tribe representatives have scheduled a press conference here today to unveil the project.

What is known is that the Eastern Shawnee tribe and its Ohio gaming development arm, National Capital I, already have a signed agreement with property owners -- Corridor 75 Park Ltd. -- to purchase about 150 acres in an industrial-commercial park southeast of I-75 and Ohio 63, according to Gary Becker, a Cincinnati attorney who represents the tribe.

The site -- which sits in both Butler and Warren counties -- gives the tribe some 3,600 feet of frontage along I-75, the kind of visibility and overall flexibility tribal leaders have long wanted, Becker said.

The location is key because millions of motorists -- and potential gamblers -- travel I-75 each year. And unlike the uncertainty surrounding the Middletown location, the tribe has a purchase agreement with property owners.

"We've reached a meeting of the minds," said Leonard Robinson, a Middletown-area broker and developer who owns the 798-acre Corridor 75 Park with Middletown attorney Greg Pratt and the Guttman family, who have interests in development and home building, much of it in the Cincinnati area.

"The document is ready for execution by the tribe," Robinson said.

On Wednesday, the tribal council is scheduled to formally approve an option to purchase the land, Becker said. The first step is not a straight purchase, but a legal step to cement their option to buy land later, Terry Casey, a Columbus-based consultant for National Capital I.

"The tribe has control of the property," he said.

The purchase price and other financial terms have not been disclosed.

Jay Stewart, Monroe's economic development director, said he has met with Becker and Casey and has received a broad outline about the project and its implications for this city of more than 7,000 residents.

In August, state Auditor Betty Montgomery placed Monroe in fiscal emergency after a fiscal analysis showed the city had deficits in 11 funds totalling $6.25 million as of April 30.

Stewart said he and City Manager William Brock have "individually" briefed City Council members.

"In general, it was very positive," Stewart said of council's reception. "Generally, they realize the huge impact that it would have for this area, to the city."

Council members have declined to comment, and Stewart is proceeding with caution.

"We're treating this like any other economic development project in that there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will materialize," he said.

Stewart said he could not provide specifics about possible revenue sharing between Monroe and tribe, saying the focus so far has been the land transaction. Talks about financial matters have only just started, he said.

"We're not counting on any money until we see the bulldozers out there or until a check comes in," he said.

The next step is having noted casino developer designer Lee Loveland, president Group West Cos. in Seattle, draft designs and concepts to best "optimize" how the land will be used and properties on it arrayed, said tribe consultant Casey.

Gov. Bob Taft remains opposed to casino gambling in the state, his spokesman, Orest Holubec said. The first step to launch an Indian gambling location in Ohio begins with the U.S. Department of Interior.

Ohio laws today allow forms of Class II gambling, such as bingo, instant bingo, pull-tabs, horse racing and some charitable gaming. Class III gaming includes games usually played at casinos, including roulette, craps, black jack or slot machines.

Tribal leaders said they want a casino where Class III gambling is allowed as well as dining, retail, lodging, entertainment options and possible conference sites.

"The casino will be but a small part of this" development, Robinson said.

Group West is identified on the National Indian Gaming Association Web site as an associate member with a focus on "gaming, resorts, hotels, restaurants, tourism and entertainment projects."

"He (Loveland) is going to look at this as a total package and give us his thoughts," Becker said.

"Nobody has had this kind of canvas to paint on," Casey said of the development possibilities.

The tribe's investment in the area will be about $250 million, while the owners of Corridor 75 will invest an additional "$400 million to $500 million," Robinson said.

Casey estimated the casino complex itself will have "3,000 to 4,000" jobs, not counting construction or other jobs spawned by the complex.

Robinson said if the project is successful, it impact could impact beyond Ohio's borders. "This becomes one of the major employment engines in the Midwest," he said.

With the excitement surrounding today's announcement, representatives said no timetable has been set when ground will be broken for the project. Becker said there is work still to be done with state or federal governments.

The tribe hopes to develop agreements with Monroe and the Butler and Warren county governments on possible revenue sharing, Casey said.

Becker said the earliest the Monroe City Council could see a proposed agreement would be Oct. 12. Stewart said he hopes to have something before city council by its Nov. 9 meeting.

Casey and Becker could not say what Monroe, Butler and Warren counties might see financially from the project.

"We want to work with the counties -- Butler and Warren," Casey said.

Butler Commissioner Michael Fox said it has long been his stance that a community's voters should speak on whether they want casino gambling.

"As an article of faith for me, I think the community should always have a right to vote 'yes' or 'no,'" said Fox, who has not set where he stands on the issue.

But the commissioner did not know if federal law governing casino gambling "preempts" any chance of a local vote on the question. And he did not know whether Gov. Taft could require a local vote in any sort of state compact with the tribe.

Fox said he has seen the tribe's plans from the tribe and is impressed with the renderings. He called them "world-class."

But he said he and his two fellow commissioners have not discussed the issue yet, and have not examined numbers, money flow, traffic impact and other infrastructure questions.

Stewart said city government cannot derail a land transaction between an American Indian tribe and private landowners. Overall, development of Indian-owned casinos is governed by a complex array of federal laws. The federal government made such projects possible through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed in 1988.

But the city may have a voice as the tribe moves through the federal regulatory process seeking to build a casino, Stewart said. He would expect state government also to be interested in how Monroe officials see the project.

"Technically, if we were to oppose this, would we be successful? I don't know that answer," Stewart said.

Stewart said he is impressed so far with Casey's and Becker's willingness to cooperate on behalf of the tribe.

"From the beginning, they have been very straightforward and honest," Stewart said.

Robinson said the timing of Ohio Department of Transportation's planned improvements to the I-75/Ohio 63 interchange -- which would lead to the main entrance into the potential casino site -- will serve the tribe's plans at the site well. He said ODOT has already staked out the project, and he expects physical work to begin on the interchange in 2006.

The state has said its commitment to the interchange upgrade is $47.5 million, with the total cost put at $53.3 million. The upgrade is on the state's new "tier I" list of projects, but the state Transportation Review Advisory Committee plans has the bulk of construction spending -- about $38.1 million -- scheduled for 2008.

Casey said he has made contact with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments to discuss the casino proposal.

National Capital I consists mainly of four principals: Botkins construction contractor Thomas Schnippel, Schnippel's wife Sharon Schnippel, as well as two Eastern Shawnee tribe members, Betty Watson and Marty Ellis.

The group already has plans to build a casino in Botkins, a Shelby County village about 75 miles north of Monroe. Casey and Becker said the proposed Monroe site will "complement," not replace, the planned Botkins development.

Becker said no building footprints have been established, but the approximately 150 acres site is well south of Monroe's existing Corridor Park and W.K. Robinson drives. The area, in which the tribe is interested, is roughly bisected by Butler-Warren Road east of I-75. Millers Creek runs through parts of it, and its northern edge runs roughly parallel with a Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline, Robinson said.

The tribe's targeted land fronts on I-75 for some two-thirds of a mile. The park has railway access, is served by a 27-inch sewer line and is within sight of a water plant, Robinson said.

"It meets all the criteria for an awesome development site," Robinson said.

Becker the location is ideal. "This is just so much better because you've got all these creative options," he said.

Main access to the development will be from Ohio 63, Robinson said, but he could not say exactly where that entrance will likely be. Today, Corridor Park Drive is the main entrance point from Ohio 63.

The property has been owned by Robinson, president of Middletown's Robinson Inc., and his partners since May 1996. The location has long been considered an industrial and commercial site.

In 1998, Taubman Centers Inc. approached Robinson about building a mall at the site, a project that has appeared to languish since. Robinson said he expects Taubman will have interest in retail possibilities tied to the Eastern Shawnee's casino and entertainment plans.

"This is something in which they (Taubman) will have a sincere interest," Robinson said.

Taubman executives could not be reached for comment.

Casey and Becker said Middletown city officials were very cooperative during their preliminary negotiations, which began in earnest last year. The tribe were interested in the area southeast of Ohio 122 and Union Road along I-75.

But Casey said once The Journal publicized the Eastern Shawnee's plans for Middletown in April, other area landowners and developers became interested -- and other options became apparent.

"The phone started ringing," Casey said.

Besides Middletown, the tribe also rejected ideas of locating in or near downtown Middletown and Middletown's Hook Field Municipal Airport. Traffic considerations and the area's distance from I-75 killed those ideas, Casey said.

Before settling on Monroe, added: "We probably looked at and evaluated 15 different locations over time."