Poarch wants more trust land

Published 2:34 pm Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A group of concerned government officials met with Poarch Band of Creek Indian officials Tuesday afternoon regarding the Tribe’s proposed Land into Trust Legislation.

The Tribe is proposing to have thousands of acres of land within the City of Atmore and Escambia County jurisdictions be taken into trust adding to its nation. “Trust” status ensures that the Tribe will maintain its land base and, once placed in trust, the land cannot be sold.

According to Robbie McGhee, governmental relations advisor for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a majority of the proposed land would be for governmental purposes only and would be subject to gaming prohibition.

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“The Tribe has always been interested in taking additional land into trust,” McGhee said.

According to McGhee, it can take the Department of Interior up to 10 years to approve the land to be taken into trust. He added that more than 200 applications for such requests are ahead of Poarch’s request.

“We wanted to try to get everybody involved and make everyone aware of what we are doing,” McGhee said. “We’re trying to be completely open regarding this process.”

However, McGhee said one of the Tribe’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., suggested that they go straight to Congress and solicit support on their behalf in hopes of having someone sponsor the legislation.

Recently, PCI officials sat down with U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, and U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in Washington to explain the reasoning for their proposal.

“They felt that Congressman Bonner was on board with it,” McGhee said. “He said, of course, when anything goes through a public comment period you want to make sure, if you can, to get the city, the county and various area leaders support.”

That prompted Tuesday’s lunch meeting at David’s Catfish House in Atmore to begin addressing any questions and concerns that either the city or county may have. Among those on hand were Atmore Mayor Howard Shell; Tribal Chairman Buford Rolin and council member David Gehman; Atmore councilmen Cornell Torrence, Webb Nall, John Garrard, Jim Staff and Chris Walker; Atmore Industrial Development Board members Jim Staff, Shep Marsh and Tommy Moore; Escambia County commissioners Brandon Smith, Chairman David Stokes, Larry White and David Quarker and Atmore business owners Rob Faircloth of David’s Catfish House and Roy White with Diamond Gasoline.

“The only prohibition that we have within this legislation is that we did agree that no gaming would take place on the proposed land that we are seeking to take into trust,” McGhee said. “So there is a gaming prohibition because sometimes that is the hardest thing to get through Congress and the Department of Interior.”

McGhee went onto say that officials are planning to use the proposed land for expanding the Tribe’s existing health care facility to include employees of all Tribal entities and possibly a small school to be used by all area residents. He said all of the Tribe’s existing trust land is being used and more is needed for building rental houses and low-income housing opportunities for Tribal members.

“The large amount of this land that we are proposing is actually Magnolia Branch because it is all contiguous together,” McGhee said. “If we can get that, we would like to.”

The Tribe hopes that with the land at Magnolia Branch in trust it would allow for more federal Parks and Wildlife funds that could be used to preserve it as a wildlife reserve.

Also included in the trust proposal is the land that the Muskogee Inn at Exit 57 adjacent to the city’s Rivercane property sits on and the land across Interstate 65 from the Diamond Oil gas station at Exit 54, which the Tribe has proposed building a multi-use truck stop including fuel, a fast food establishment, shower facilities, laundry and entertainment rooms and more.

“There are only two parcels that are in the city jurisdiction and that is the parcel with Muskogee Inn and the other parcel where our current Tribal council offices are,” McGhee said. “The rest of that is in Escambia County.”

By obtaining the additional land, it would allow for the Tribe to apply for additional federal funding for various improvements to the land, McGhee said.

Among the concerns were the loss of tax revenue for the city by way of lodging taxes generated from Muskogee Inn and local and county gasoline taxes that the Tribe would not be required to pay should a truck stop be constructed.

“My concern is selfish from our businesses standpoint,” White said. “What we are concerned with is the tax advantage. For my family and I, we’ve been paying taxes and playing by the rules for a long time around here and we’re concerned even with just sales tax. I understand that you guys are paying state and federal gas taxes. I don’t think it’s just a concern for me, but anybody that’s in retail close by.”

In response, McGhee said the Tribe is not seeking to take away the customer base of local businesses.

“The Tribe has always played by the rules too,” McGhee said. “It is sometimes a different set of rules that we have no control over. When it comes to that, we are not going after the local market. That is not our intent.”

The truck stop would also be exempt from city and county sales taxes, which White also raised a concern about.

“I’ve got no problem with competition, my concern is an even playing field,” White said.

McGhee went onto say that the Tribe has looked at the advantage the additional businesses would have on the area and employment opportunities.

“On behalf of the county commission, please don’t construe our silences as approving your request,” Stokes said. “We do have concerns.”

McGhee added that the Tribe has agreements with the county to pave roads with the county maintaining them and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office for mutual aid.

The group of government officials did not make any decision based on Poarch’s proposal, but did agree that another meeting would be needed to come up with “what would be best for the city and the county” and possible funding needs in lieu of taxes. The group believes that if the land went into trust, it would give both the city and county a tax disadvantage and eliminate growth.

“The more we are informed, the better off we will be,” Shell said.

A date for another meeting has not been set.