Catawba Indian Nation opens bingo hall in Rock Hill

— Five minutes before the first number was called, three Charlotte women – “old retired broads,” they call themselves – sat ready, waiting.

At their sides were bottles of lemon Lipton iced tea. In front of them were stacks of dollar bills. One of them had a $20.

Those three ladies, all of them friends, were among the 150 players who came to a former Bi-Lo grocery store on Cherry Road in Rock Hill for the grand opening of the Catawba Indian Nation’s bingo hall.

The new hall, met the three Charlotte women’s approval. It’s nice, clean, beautiful, they said.

Best of all, “it’s smoke-free,” Carol Leandro said. “That’s so important.”

Saturday was the first time the Catawbas have offered bingo since 2006 when they closed the Nations in Rock Hill bingo hall amid allegations of money mismanagement, tax problems and competition from the state’s education lottery.

A 1993 land settlement with state and federal government allows the Catawba Indian Nation to offer high-stakes bingo in York County. Construction on the new hall at the Northeast Plaza began in February.

Saturday was a scouting expedition for Leandro, 65, and her friends, Gloria Sekulski, 77, and Veronica Donath, 71. If they enjoyed themselves – even if they didn’t make money – the three retirees said they will likely drive to Rock Hill during the week to play bingo. They said they might even come back at night and use the computer bingo machines.

Leandro and Sekulski have played bingo for decades. Donath said she isn’t that much of a fan. But, what binds them, she said, is “we’re gamblers.”

They went Saturday with enough money to play until “our money runs out,” Sekulski said.

Still, the women are waiting to spend even bigger bucks at a Catawba-run casino. The U.S. Department of the Interior is reviewing the Catawba’s application to put land in a trust, the first step to building a casino in Kings Mountain, N.C.

The tribe is considering its legal options for a casino at its York County reservation. The S.C. Supreme Court has ruled the state’s ban on video poker machines applies on the reservation.

On Saturday Catawba Chief Bill Harris’ focus wasn’t on just the tribe. He honed in on the players themselves.

“Can you feel the positive energy in the room?” he asked. “I can only feel good about this. It’s been a long time coming.”

When he arrived at the bingo hall just before the the doors opened at 1 p.m., the line of people stretched from the sidewalk to the parking lot, Harris said.

“They are excited to see what Catawba has to offer,” he said.

Oneill Vinson, of Indian Land, drove to Rock Hill to earn a “big moment.” She said she has played the game for 16 years.

“It’s a gamble,” said Vinson, 50. “I do it to relax me. I take bingo-for-me time.”

After the doors opened, workers at the Catawba hall moved through the rows of tables, grabbing cash players held in the air to replenish their paper cards for new games. For several hours, the shouts of “Bingo!” rang through the hall that can seat up to 1,300.

The first bingo belonged to Rock Hill’s Barbara Bryson, 49.

There’s no secret to winning the game she’s played for 30 years, she said.

She said she never goes into a game expecting to win, “I just hope.”

On Saturday, she won her first $100.

She aimed to win much more before she reported to work at 5:30 p.m. She works at a different bingo hall.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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