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Cox maintains that Cordish cut the Central American property loose amid maneuvering to get the tribal council to depose the obstinate chairman Billie, who wouldn't have given the Baltimore developer the long-term deal it eventually got. "Hard Rock took down James Billie," says Cox, a nearly crew-cut Army reservist who ships out to Iraq on April 24. His wife, Amy, and two children are Seminoles; he cares for the tribe but no longer works for it.
Cox, who was Billie's government operations manager, helped bring in Cordish. The developer floated the idea of a Margaritaville-themed resort. Billie insisted on the international appeal that the Hard Rock name carries.
In 1999, while tending to a Seminole cattle field in Nicaragua, Cox found a hotel that had been repossessed. He crunched the numbers, presented an investment deal to the tribal council, and got Cordish and Hard Rock on board to refurbish the Managua hotel. The 93-room hotel opened in March 2001. The restaurant, sporting an 18-foot, hand-carved mahogany bar with a 25-foot neon guitar on the ceiling above it, began operating the following month.
Billie says the aim was to invest in similar Hard Rock ventures around the world that "would make money without Seminole efforts."
The project would have earned about $800,000 a year for the tribe, Cox says, and similar ventures were on deck for Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. But the property was barely opened before Cox resigned his post with the tribe on May 10, 2001.
After the tribal council suspended Billie on May 24, Cox took control of the Managua Hard Rock property with the understanding that he would run it and give the tribe a 10 percent cut. But the Managua-trois among Cordish, Hard Rock, and the tribe broke apart. After some dithering, Cordish pulled out altogether, leaving Cox with thousands of dollars in debts. Hard Rock declared the restaurant illegal, Cox says, and the memorabilia was eventually removed at gunpoint, sending panicked hotel workers scurrying out through office windows. The tribe, meanwhile, launched a series of civil and criminal suits against Cox both in Florida and Nicaragua, none of which has yet been successful.
In Cox's analysis, Cordish renounced the Managua property as a sop to the tribal council. At the time of his ouster, Billie had made enemies on both sides. His long-term aims were to put tribal members in management and not to sign deals for more than ten or 15 years. He was trying to stem the sort of free spending that council member David Cypress confessed to in federal court.
With Billie in exile, Cordish got its fingers deeper in the Seminole pie. The final deal, negotiated after Billie's departure, could generate $1.3 billion or more for the developer in the next ten years -- and will continue paying somewhat less for 15 more years, a recent Baltimore Sun analysis found. The newspaper also reported that the tribe will pay Hard Rock $2 million upfront and a 3 percent cut of the casinos' profit for use of the recognized brand.
The current 25-year Cordish deal also will expire concurrently with Hard Rock Café International's agreement to allow use of its name. Cox predicts that Hard Rock, which has strong business ties with Cordish, will persuade the Seminole to keep the developer involved. "The relationship is never going to be with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Hard Rock," Cox says. "The relationship will always be between Cordish and Hard Rock, and the Seminole will be their patsy to make money."
Billie's plan for Seminole management of the properties also seems to be relegated to the distant future. After the chairman's ouster, the tribe hired James F. Allen as its CEO of gaming operations for all its casinos. His most recent experience was not in running Class II gaming, as might be expected -- but at Cordish, coordinating design for the Seminole Hard Rock properties. "I've met Jim Allen," Cox says. "And under no circumstances would I ever, ever hire him inside the tribe... I believe his loyalties still lie with Cordish."
Repeated interview requests to Allen went unanswered. Cordish Co. responded to questions about the deal e-mailed by New Times with marketing drivel that began thusly: "There is nothing in either the Tampa market or in the South Florida region comparable to the Seminole Hard Rock developments."
The Hollywood casino carries more than the billion-dollar hopes of the Seminoles. Plenty of other folks have bet their own fortunes, with the goal of raking in minimum wage plus tips. In late February, the casino owners held a three-day job fair that drew about 6,500 people looking for work as janitors, cooks, managers, and housekeepers. About half will eventually get work at the Hollywood complex, which anticipates a collective payroll of $80 million per year.
Wil Herrera, the bespectacled, goateed poker manager of the Seminole casinos, says he invited about 80 applicants to audition as dealers. His choices were based foremost on personality. "I can't teach these people to be nice," he says, but he can teach them to shuffle.
So, for the past four weeks, they have been learning to deal in a bank turned Montessori school turned poker academy just south of the Hollywood casino. Everyone who passes the audition after the 30-hours-per-week training (for which most paid $500, refundable if they're hired) will be offered a job.