Elmore officials welcome Wind Creek
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians announced Wednesday plans for a massive expansion of their Wind Creek facility in Wetumpka and, so far, the news has been met by local officials in the area with a sense of optimism.
And while the Escambia County Commission remains in dispute with Poarch over possible tax revenue, officials in Elmore County and Wetumpka said they are “comfortable” with their relationship with the tribe. But that wasn’t always the case in a relationship that once included a lawsuit filed against Poarch.
On Friday, Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis said he is excited for what the upgrade could mean for his city.
“We’ve never had anything this large to hit us before,” Willis said. “Eighty-three million years ago a meteor rock struck this tremendous city and left a big hole in the ground. This is just totally opposite. They’re going to build something massive out of the ground.”
But optimism has not always been the way Wetumpka city officials have reacted to PCI plans in their area. In 2001, the city filed a lawsuit against the tribe, a legal action later dismissed by council members. “In 2001, the City of Wetumpka brought a lawsuit against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to try and stop PCI from coming here doing what they were trying to do here,” Willis said. “It was filed in the court system to try and stop it. The decision was later made by the city council to drop the lawsuit.”
Over a decade later, the tribe is preparing to upgrade their Wetumpka facility on a massive scale. And the project is certainly massive — a 20-story tower with 285 rooms and suites overlooking the Coosa River, as well as a 90,000 square foot gaming floor with more than 2,500 electronic gaming machines, a resort pool and entertainment rooms. The end result will be a facility to rival the original Wind Creek Casino and Hotel in Atmore.
Willis said, much like Atmore’s facility, the majority of Wind Creek Wetumpka will be located on “compact,” or trust, land that will be exempt from city and county taxes. Also like the tribe’s location in Atmore, the casino and hotel premises will also include areas such as parking lots, connecting buildings and a gift shop that are located on “fee” lands that are taxable by local government entities.
Despite the similarities, Willis said there are key differences between the two facilities.
“Our situation and Atmore’s situation are somewhat different,” Willis said. “(Wind Creek) sits out on the Interstate in Atmore, while here they are almost within rock-throwing distance of down town Wetumpka.”
What does the mayor think the proximity will mean for his city? He says mostly good things.
“I’m sure that there are some issues in the backs of people’s minds,” he said. “There will be traffic concerns, especially during the construction phase. We have to work with PCI to schedule shift changes and things that will coincide and not affect our people going to and from work on their daily schedules. I’m sure there is no big business that won’t create some issues, but PCI have been wonderful partners so far. They have been supportive of all efforts in our city.”
David Bowen, Elmore County commissioner for District 3, where the resort is located, said the commission also views the expansion as a plus.
“We see it as a positive for the community,” Bowen said. “They’re going to be bringing in 1,200 construction jobs and full-time permanent positions.”
While Bowen did not discuss any financial agreements that may be comparable to the $100,000-a-year agreement made between PCI and the Escambia County Commission, he did say the tribe has been more than open with helping their county.
“The Indians have pledged to be good citizens and work with us to resolve any issue that might be out there,” he said. “This is nothing new for the community. (PCI has) been part of the community for six or eight years now. The only thing new is going to be the scale of the facility. It’s just bigger than what we have in place now.”
Bowen, like Willis, said he feels the location of the facility, in Wetumpka proper, will only add to the positive impact on the community, contributing to local business rather than taking away from it.
“It’s going to have the exact opposite effect, because they’re going to build on the river and it will probably compliment the downtown riverfront development that we are doing,” Bowen said. “It will probably have a positive impact to the whole downtown area.”
As for concerns over PCI’s current embattled state with the commission in their home county of Escambia, both Willis and Bowen said they are not concerning themselves with a situation that has nothing to do with their own, or with their agreements with the tribe.
“Our governmental bodies up here, I think they are comfortable with where we are,” Willis said. “I don’t know what happened in 1934, but I do know what happened in 1984 and I know this — they have been here for probably 30 years. I was in the first meetings when they came here talking about what they wanted to do. It has been a long time coming. If they are allowed to continue, fine. We embrace that. We don’t know what they’re dealing with internally. We are comfortable where we are.”
With officials in Wetumpka and Elmore County on board, Poarch Tribal Chairman Buford L. Rolin said the tribe is also very excited to get the ball rolling on their new project.
“This project will provide much needed jobs to tribal members and our neighbors in Wetumpka,” Rolin said. “We have seen Wind Creek in Atmore have a very positive ripple effect on the economy, and we look forward to seeing other businesses in the Wetumpka community grow and prosper because of this development.”
Jay Dorris, president of the PCI Gaming Authority said Wind Creek Wetumpka will be held to the same high standards as all PCI facilities.
“We have set very high standards for our Wind Creek Casino and Hotel brand,” Dorris said. “This is one of the most beautiful settings imaginable for this kind of first-class resort, and we want it to offer the same kind of quality experience that people have come to expect from Wind Creek in Atmore, which is one of the few hotels in our state with a Four Diamond rating.”
Dorris said construction has already begun on Wind Creek Wetumpka, which is slated to open in late fall of 2013.