An Oklahoma-based Indian tribe that wants to open several casinos in Ohio and has inked land deals in four towns is looking at Stark County as a possible site.
``It's a county that we would like to be in,'' said Columbus consultant Terry Casey, who has been hired by the Eastern Shawnee Tribe to promote its gambling interests in Ohio.
The Eastern Shawnee already has revealed potential casino projects in Lordstown, Lorain, Munroe near Cincinnati, and Botkins in west-central Ohio. The Lordstown proposal, announced in February, is for a $100 million to $300 million complex that would include a casino, hotels, restaurants, shops and other entertainment venues.
The Eastern Shawnee, who lived in Ohio until forced out in the 1830s, is enthusiastic about Stark because of its population (378,098, according to the 2000 census), highway system (Interstate 77, state Route 21, and U.S. Routes 30 and 62) and tourist attractions (Pro Football Hall of Fame, National First Ladies' Library and nearby Amish country), Casey said.
But proponents and even those opposed to casinos in the area say it's too early to get excited or upset, especially because no site has been selected in Stark, and state leaders and voters have yet to approve casino gambling in Ohio. ``There are so many `what-ifs' at this point, so I think it's extremely preliminary,'' Stark County Commissioner Gayle Jackson said.
The Eastern Shawnee tribe is reviewing three or four sites in Stark, including the former Republic Steel property along the Tuscarawas River in Massillon. Casey declined to name the other locations but said the site must have access to water and sewer service, must not create traffic tie-ups and must not have environmental problems.
He added that there's no timetable for determining whether the tribe will make a specific proposal in Stark.
The tribe's interest in the Republic Steel location became public after one of the property owners, Steve DiPietro, contacted Casey about using it. Casey toured the Republic Steel property and met with local officials, including Massillon Mayor Francis Cicchinelli Jr., in late April.
``I approached them because I thought it would be a good source of revenue for the county,'' DiPietro said. ``It looks like our manufacturing jobs have gone and are not coming back.''
The tribe says its Lordstown resort would create as many as 3,000 jobs, income tax revenue, and a potential $4 million to $5 million for Trumbull County under a revenue-sharing agreement.
Ohio is one of only 20 states without American Indian gambling and is an area for expansion, said Alan Meister, an economist with Los Angeles-based Analysis Group Inc. He studies the industry and released the 2005-06 edition of his Indian Gaming Industry Report last week. It shows American Indian gambling was a $19 billion-a-year business in 2004 -- a 12 percent jump from 2003. More than 225 tribes run 405 gambling facilities, employ about 277,000 people and pay $8.8 billion in wages annually, according to the report.
The major trend in American Indian gambling is creating resorts with entertainment, hotels, shopping and restaurants so that people spend more than a day at the casino. American Indian casinos are adding on to existing facilities. As a result, nongambling revenue rose about 16 percent to $2.1 billion in 2004, according to Meister's report.
Casey said the Eastern Shawnee tribe proposes gambling resorts, not merely slots parlors, citing Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Michigan and Turning Stone Resort & Casino in New York as examples of what the tribe wants to do in Ohio.
Casey dismissed concerns that there could be too many casinos in the state and that they would cancel each other out as tourist attractions. ``The reality is that Ohio is a big state of 11.4 million people,'' Casey said. ``It's also a state with a higher-than-average interest in gambling.''
Reaction in Stark
A potential casino in Stark County has supporters, opponents and those who just haven't made up their minds.
``If it is legalized for the entire state, I'm against casinos in Stark County,'' said state Sen. J. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Twp., who also opposes casinos elsewhere in the state. ``I think there are better forms of economic development.''
Others are concerned about social problems associated with gambling.
But some say a casino would bring much-needed jobs to the community. A casino in Stark County could create 1,000 to 1,500 jobs, with annual pay of $18,000 to $25,000, said Massillon resident James Walker, a Democrat running this year for the City Council's Ward 5, which includes the Republic Steel site.
He has traveled to Vicksburg, Miss., a city similar in size to Massillon, to study the impact of a casino there and said the city has benefited from new jobs and added tourism. The trip persuaded him to support a casino and to push for it in Massillon.
``I'm an advocate for Tiger Town,'' he said. ``I would hate to see it go somewhere else.''
But Massillon's mayor, Cicchinelli, isn't ready to be a cheerleader. ``It's something we don't know enough about,'' he said, citing the lack of details about a potential casino in the city. ``But we have to look at it.''