Catawba Indian Nation looking to bring high stakes bingo back to Rock Hill

By Anna Douglas —        

The Catawba Indian Nation is working to finalize a lease agreement to bring back its “high stakes bingo” business on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.

A tribal spokeswoman told The Herald this week that the Catawba Indian Nation plans to sub-lease from Bi-Lo a 45,000-square-foot space in the Northeast Plaza Shopping Center at Cherry and Anderson roads.

The bingo venue is an economic development tool for the tribe and York County, said Elizabeth Harris, Catawba Indian Nation spokeswoman.

The tribe operated a bingo venue in Rock Hill from 1997 to 2006 when it closed the business, citing that competition from the South Carolina Education Lottery stifled its profits.

The old bingo hall was located at the old Rock Hill Mall on Cherry Road. The mall was later demolished, and a Super Bi-Lo anchors a retail center at the site now.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris was unavailable for comment Friday but submitted a statement through Elizabeth Harris saying, “Since I was elected, I have had the chance to talk to many residents of York County. The thing that I get asked over and over is whether the tribe is going to bring back Catawba Bingo.

“We are excited to finally say ‘yes.’”

Details on when the bingo venue may open, the tribe’s investment in the location and the number of jobs created are not yet available, Harris said, but the tribe plans to release that information soon.

The Catawbas – the state’s only federally-recognized tribe – have a right to operate a bingo venue under the tribe’s 1993 settlement agreement with the state of South Carolina.

The tribe can open two bingo halls in S.C., including one in York County, under the settlement terms.

Recently, the Catawbas have tried to negotiate with other counties to open bingo halls in other parts of the state but those efforts have been unsuccessful, Harris said.

The state Department of Revenue has granted the tribe a special license classification to run “high stakes bingo,” with prizes capped at $100,000.

The special license, Harris said, gives the Catawbas more flexibility on prize layouts and days of operation.

Tribe leaders waged a court battle with the state in January 2012 over building a casino on the 700-acre Catawba Indian Reservation in eastern York County.

The Catawbas have the right to operate a casino on their land, according to claims in the lawsuit against the state.

The lawsuit claims that the state would receive $110 million in gaming fees and taxes every year if the Catawbas are allowed to open a casino.

The tribe’s claims hinge on 2005 state laws that cleared the way for legal casino boat gambling off the coast of South Carolina.

S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, has said the 2005 casino boat law is not designed to allow for the Catawbas to build a casino on their land because the tribe is not going into international waters.

This week, Hayes said he is still strongly opposed to a casino on the York County reservation but sees no issue with a bingo hall if it follows the terms of the Catawbas’ settlement with the state.

There is no pending legislation in South Carolina that he is aware of that would allow the Catawbas to build a casino, he said.

Under the city of Rock Hill’s zoning rules for businesses, the Catawbas can open a bingo hall in the Northeast Plaza Shopping Center provided it meets the zoning standards, said Katie Quinn, city spokeswoman.

Bingo venues are considered an “unlisted use” in Rock Hill’s regulations so staff members review similar uses to determine whether a proposed use conforms to rules, she said.

The Catawbas have not yet sought any permits or filed any paperwork with the city for the proposed bingo hall, she said, but planning department staff members have worked with the tribe to answer questions about city regulations.

Catawba bingo could pave the way for more business in the Cherry Road plaza – which is a good thing, said Will Whitley, partner with Charlotte-based New South Properties, which manages the shopping center.

The plaza is 95 percent leased, he said.

Bi-Lo continues to pay rent for empty space at the shopping center – a move to keep competition from moving in near its Cherry Road Super Bi-Lo.

The grocery store chain continues to control the plaza’s “anchor space,” Whitley said.

Although he might prefer a Publix or Harris Teeter to move in instead of a bingo hall, Whitley said he’s excited about the Catawba’s intent to bring an entertainment facility centered around bingo.

“They expect to bring in thousands of visitors daily which will translate to lots of potential business for the tenants of Northeast Plaza – especially the restaurants,” he said.

The tribe has told Whitley’s firm that it does not intend to serve alcohol and expects the average bingo customer may be age 50 or older.

Whitley also expects that the Catawbas will make a large financial investment in the space which has been vacant for years.

“The agreement is between Bi-Lo and the tribe so we really just have to be thankful that at least we will have a huge traffic generator,” Whitley said.

The Herald July 19, 2013

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068