Choctaws May Open Casino in Louisiana

By Hector San Miguel

The nomadic tribe of Choctaw Indians want to build a land-based casino and hotel complex inside the city limits of Vinton, La.

The multi-million dollar project could become a reality this year if the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs approves a compact agreement between the state and the tribe recently signed by Gov. Mike Foster. A final decision is expected to come as early as mid-March, according to Patrick Martin, assistant executive counsel to the Governor.

The Choctaws are based in Jena, La., but are a nomadic "band," or tribe. If the Choctaws build the casino in Vinton, it will make Southwest Louisiana the third largest gaming venue in southern U.S. behind Tunica County, Miss. And Biloxi, Miss.

Calcasieu Parish (County) Administrator Mark McMurry said Tuesday the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed his office last month about the proposed casino project in Calcasieu, La. He said the proposed casino site is located immediately north of Interstate 10 in the eastern part of the town of Vinton.

In a Jan. 15 letter to the parish, bureau officials in Nashville, Tenn. wrote, "This regional office has under consideration an application for acquisition of land by the U.S. to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the Jena band of Choctaw Indians.

Contacted Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Martin said Gov. Foster had signed the compact but no details on its contents would be made public at this time. "I can confirm that the governor did sign a compact with the Jena band (of Choctaws)," McMurray said. "However, the compact has not been approved and is not valid until it's approved by the U.S. Department of Interior. Until it's approved or disapproved by the Department of Interior, we are not commenting on any of the details including where it's (casino) going to be."

Martin said the Governor's Office hopes to make an announcement on the compact's fate by mid-March.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows for federally-recognized Indian tribes to open casinos in any state that allows gambling. However, Indian tribes have to negotiate compacts with the state where the casino will be located and with the federal government.

"The (Choctaw) tribe right now does not actually have any sort of reservation," Martin said. "They have to apply to have lands which they own taken into trust to become a reservation."

Martin said no gaming could occur until this process about the tribal land is completed.

Vinton has been one of several sites the tribe has looked at in the past year for a casino, according to local developers.

The proposed Choctaw casino would compete with the four existing Calcasieu Parish riverboat casinos, a race track slot parlor in West Calcasieu, another Indian casino near Kinder on Allen Parish, and perhaps, a fifth riverboat casino in Lake Charles, if it passes a local option vote this spring.

The Choctaw proposal would not need a local-option vote of the people to open. Like the existing Grand Casino Coushatta in Allen Parish, it would be operating in a sovereign Indian nation outside the jurisdiction of such votes.