Seminole Tribe's $1.6 billion expansion hinges on fate of gaming compact

But the Seminoles say casino and hotel expansion is tied to a new gaming deal.
Published March 10 2015
Updated March 11 2015

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is planning a $1.6 billion expansion of its casinos and hotels in Tampa and Hollywood that could create 4,000 permanent jobs.

But it says those projects won't happen unless Florida's leaders and the tribe agree on a new gaming compact that would allow the Seminoles to continue offering banked card games like blackjack.

"If nothing happens," Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Tuesday, "both of these projects are on hold."

The 2010 agreement that granted the Seminoles the exclusive rights to run card games of baccarat, blackjack and chemin de fer at five of its seven casinos is set to expire July 21.

The Seminoles' gambling operations generated $255 million for the state last year. The expiring compact generated about $116 million of that.

But the fate of that agreement — whether to renew, alter or scuttle it — rests in Tallahassee.

Under federal law, the governor negotiates the compact and the Legislature has to approve it. In reality, it's a three-way negotiation among the governor, lawmakers and tribal leaders.

But tribal general counsel Jim Shore said the tribe hasn't heard from Gov. Rick Scott's office since January.

"Whatever the state wants to do, we'll deal with it," Shore said. "But right now we're not getting a lot of communication from the state on the table gaming part of the compact."

Tribal leaders have been meeting with legislators, however, and have mobilized lobbyists.

The Times asked Scott's office about the status of the negotiations and when the next session will take place. "We will take the time that's needed to get the best deal for our state," spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante said in an email.

Last week the Times reported that the tribe is shaping plans to add a new hotel to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which was built on tribal property in Tampa.

If built, the proposed 16-story, 537-room hotel would be the second-largest hotel in Hillsborough County behind the 719-room Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina in downtown Tampa.

The new hotel would also give the Seminoles' Tampa operation a total of 817 rooms next to its most profitable casino. The Tampa Hard Rock is the fourth-largest casino in the nation and generated 40 percent of the tribe's estimated $2.2 billion in total gambling revenues last year.

Tribal officials said that their Tampa plans go beyond a new hotel: They also want to build an entertainment venue and grand ballroom.

The price tag of the Tampa portion of the expansion project is about $650 million. The rest of the $1.6 billion would add a 1,000-room, guitar-shaped hotel to the tribe's Hollywood resort.

Those plans have not yet been approved by tribal leaders. But the leadership also made it clear Tuesday that the fate of those projects rests with the fate of the gaming compact. They want to see it renewed. But others have different ideas.

Last week, House Republican Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, rolled out a plan to overhaul Florida's gambling industry, which the Seminoles are not fans of.

Young said her bill would reassert Florida's control over the gambling industry and generate more revenue for the state. But critics said it would expand gambling by allowing outside gaming companies to open two new casino resorts in South Florida. It would also allow four dog tracks there to forgo racing altogether and instead offer slot machines.

The bill would also allow the Seminoles to offer the full range of gambling options like blackjack, craps and roulette — but the tribe would no longer retain their exclusive rights to banked card games in Florida.

Allen said that expanding gambling and allowing outside gaming companies to enter the state would be bad for Florida. It would be better, he said, to allow the tribe to continue offering a limited number of gambling options instead.

Young's office did not return a request for comment.

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.