By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The Seminole Hard Rock casino in Tampa is a low-slung, vanilla-colored, 37-acre playpen with a 50-foot replica of a Paul McCartney electric guitar at the street entrance and an Elvis-autographed six-string inside. On Saturday night, it becomes a cross between an outlet mall, a meat market, and a nursing home. The gift shop offers Grateful Dead swim trunks for $60. The don't-call-them-slot machines siphon sawbucks from your grandparents' money clips while wide-bodied go-getters with sideburns and sneers coagulate around the three casino bars. The carpet designs are chromatic explosions. The lights on the ceiling keep changing colors. The wait for a seat in the 32-table poker room is two hours. The ten-month-old, 90,000-square-foot casino bristles with the human static that comes when "Village of the Damned" Aryans share a room with large women wearing Shaun King jerseys, the Nickelodeon set, white boys in FUBU, and the determined elderly, including a woman who looks like Strom Thurmond resurrected.
And look over there -- the original Aldous Huxley cardboard head from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover! A glossy suit that used to belong to Brian Setzer! A harmonica Bob Dylan played in a concert! Dude, this place has everything.
And on May 11, on State Road 7 north of Stirling Road, Hollywood's getting an even bigger one.
From the Tampa casino's center bar rises a plume of plasma TV screens, steel mesh, and liquor bottles that serve as a porch light to Ricky Dillon, age 22, and Justin Messenger, age 24, a pair of childhood friends from Tampa who sit a couple of feet above the fracas of force-feeding bills into the blipping, flashing gaming machines. Dillon, who dates a Seminole woman and builds chickee huts by day, is the taller of the two, with dark skin and a Randy Moss All-Star jersey. Messenger, a carpet cleaner, sports a white-and-navy Ralph Lauren pullover. Both could use a shave. They speak highly of the March 11 opening of this hotel -- there was a fire by the pool, apparently, and that was cool. They say that the food here sucks but that otherwise, this new joint makes hash of the Seminole casino that previously occupied this space.
"It was rundown, ghetto -- everything. It was just horrible," Dillon says, his gold chain swaying. "This is a thousand times better, a thousand times."
The biggest difference Dillon notices in the new casino: "Girls." Ah, yes. The center bar affords a panoramic view of Von-Dutch-hat-wearing hotties, raven-haired model-types in pinstriped pants -- blond kewpie dolls fending off Efferdent advances. Where the cute dames go, so will follow contrails of gel-smeared mooks hoping to cadge tail.
Still, the capricious cute-girl demographic remains ambivalent. Later in the evening, three friends from Clearwater -- Denise Fougere, age 23, Victoria Mills, age 27, and Brieanne Wheeler, age 24 -- wait to enter the bingo room. All are clad in scanty somethings that show off back and midriff. They'd fit in fine at even the haughtiest nightclub. When someone blows a whistle, they glance backward. A man stands on the bar, juggling four white bottles, enthralling gawkers from all sides. He pauses a moment to light wicks at the tops of the bottles and continues juggling the tumbling flames.
"I didn't see that the last time I was here," Wheeler says, unimpressed.
They proceed to get shellacked in the bingo hall, then convene with the other cool kids at the center bar. "Bingo sucked," says Wheeler, who works office support in an Alzheimer's clinic. "They called the numbers too slow."
Mills is right. Vegas it ain't, quite, though the Seminole tribe and its financial partners are betting more than $440 million that they can present a reasonable facsimile.
The Hollywood facility will be closer to the Diamond of the Desert, with a 500-room hotel instead of a 250, more casino floor space, more restaurants, and more room for conventions, all in a glittering, ivory catacomb that simultaneously recalls a suburban office park and a palace out of Star Wars. It will neighbor the transmission shops and cigarette trailers that now line nearby State Road 7. It is intended to complement the smoky, dusty, low-slung, low-overhead, 25-year-old casino less than a mile south.
The Seminole Hard Rock casino resorts comprise what may be the most ambitious Native American casino resorts ever forged in the Southeastern United States. For more than 1,200 rooms combined and 200,000 square feet of casino space, the Seminole tribe is on the hook for $410 million in bonds it'll be paying back for 30 years. Additional thousands of people will depend on the hotel and casino for a living. The stakes riding on the new venture are staggering, even before the first Social Security check is converted to bingo cards.
Max Osceola sits in his corner office on the third floor of the gleaming, blue-and-steel tribal headquarters on Stirling Road in Hollywood, about a half-mile from the Hard Rock. The Seminole wears a black ball cap adorned with the emblem of the Tampa Hard Rock casino on top of his graying hair and round face. His broad frame tapers into blue jeans that nearly cover a pair of anteater-skin boots. The firm, black-leather furniture here is trimmed with hundreds of Indian-head nickels.
"We couldn't find any conquistador nickels," quips Osceola, the Hollywood reservation's representative to the Seminole tribal council. He inherited disdain for European conquerors from the Native Americans who lived in Florida before it came under Spanish control, who then battled Andrew Jackson's soldiers almost 200 years ago, and who then were forced westward to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. In the 1850s, a few hundred Seminoles split from those being chased out and burrowed into the swamps; those who stayed behind are the ancestors of Florida's Seminoles, who in 1957 wrote a charter that the U.S. government recognized. The tribe was cash-poor until the 1970s, when Chairman Howard Tommie launched tax-free smoke shops. Then in 1979, the Seminoles started the first high-stakes Indian bingo in the country. That withstood court challenges and blossomed into a veritable betting bonanza.
By the mid-1990s, the Seminole had become among the richest gaming tribes in the country. Its members had opened five casinos that were hauling in more than $350 million a year. The tribe opened several other businesses; combined, they pay for clinics, schools, full college scholarships for Seminole children, and a monthly $3,500 dole to each of the tribe's 3,000 members.
"That's the philosophy, and that's the culture of a hunter going out and bringing back food not just for his family but for everyone," Osceola says.
"Oh, yes, thank you," the councilman adds, turning to a couple of technicians come in to tinker with the air-conditioning control on the wall. It is just a shade warm in here.
Osceola's plush office is just one small example of the tribe's current level of conspicuous comfort. The man most responsible for this luxury is James Billie, the alligator-wrestling, jet-joyriding, rock musician chairman who devised the Hard Rock project in May of 2001. During his 22 years of leadership, Billie raised the tribe from being millions of dollars in the red to earning nearly half a billion annually. In the mid-'90s, "[we] decided that, as the leader in the United States in opening casinos, we should have something really fantastic," Billie says.
The tribe broke ground on the Hollywood-reservation Hard Rock in January 2001. About four months later, on May 24, the council suspended the chairman, alleging that he had sexually harassed an employee and surreptitiously diverted $2.77 million of the tribe's money to an Internet gaming company in Belize and another Hard Rock venture in Managua, Nicaragua.
Today, Billie builds chickees for a living and receives no tribal benefits except health care. Still, he speaks well of the tribe and of the Hard Rock deal. "It will bring numerous bucks coming to the tribe," Billie says, before delivering a jibe. "I'm glad [the firm that issued the bonds] hasn't backed out."
Suspending the mercurial chairman hardly ended the weirdness that has followed the Seminole in recent years. In January 2002, the tribe's general counsel, Jim Shore -- who had helped negotiate with Hard Rock -- was shot through a glass door in the back of his Hollywood home. The blind attorney took two to the arm and one to the torso and survived. No arrests were ever made.
Meanwhile, the feds have shown interest in the tribe's lavish spending -- which will increase financial pressure on the Hard Rock to be highly profitable. In June 2002, Billie's right-hand man, Tim Cox, was indicted and charged with embezzlement and money laundering. Though he was cleared, his trial later that year brought to public view the tribal council members' frittering away tens of millions of dollars on luxury cars, stereo equipment, and credit card charges.
Just two months ago, Philip Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, visited Hollywood to admonish the tribe about the unfettered spending and warn against gaming machines that too much resemble restricted, Class III gaming. A spokeswoman for the NIGC, which can fine or shutter noncompliant casinos, said the tribe promised reform based on those conversations. The Internal Revenue Service continues to investigate the council for unpaid taxes on discretionary spending.
"One of the responsibilities that comes along with having money is learning how to use it," Osceola says. "We've learned from that process." The councilman recalls the site of the new casino when it was little more than a huge retention pond. Kids would bike in on hot, dusty days and go swimming there. "Now if we get hot, we just go over and get in our four-acre pool, with a bar and a mountain with a slide," he says. "We've come a long way, baby."
Tim Cox has in his Plantation home ample mementos of the tribe's first venture with Hard Rock and Cordish Co. -- a developer with experience building entertainment and retail complexes -- in Nicaragua. Along with a PowerPoint presentation on the four-story hotel and boxes of audits and bank records, he has a slender shot glass and a Hard Rock guitar pin inscribed with Managua. Don't look for those in a gift shop any time soon, though, because after that Hard Rock Live opened briefly in 2001, it was buried.
Its failure might be instructive about the future of the Florida ventures. Cox's account of the Nicaraguan deal and analysis of Cordish's ultimate contract on the Hollywood and Tampa Hard Rock properties suggests the tribe's biggest risk may be how much control it relinquished to get the deal done.
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.
This place, with its leftover knee-high sinks between kid-scale restrooms, is filled with people who have wagered tuition -- and in many cases, their jobs -- that they can start new lives. Thirty-four-year-old Jay Vong, a slender, reserved fellow, used to deal in Minnesota but a few months ago moved to Florida because the weather here reminds him of his native Vietnam. It's this or construction for him. Efrain Palencia, an 18-year-old with a faint mustache, works food service at the Seminole casino across the street and sometimes attends class in the white tuxedo shirt he wears to that job, orange grease splatters and all. On a lunch break one day, Palencia sits alone at a table, shuffling. When he deals a mock hand, the cards often flutter and land face-up. "I've been awake for more than 24 hours," he explains. If he can't get it right, it'll be back to the snack bar.
They're learning alongside Marsha Lerner, the hairdresser; Candice Niddrie, the 50-year-old former Playboy bunny; Giovanna Garcia, the former baccarat dealer from Lima who just quit her job at Baby Gap to get into poker; the current cruise ship dealer who could lose his job if his name appears here, who says he wants to trade up to the casino because "it's more stable -- this place is going to be there forever;" and John DeSisto, the cruise ship poker dealer with a Taz tattoo on his right forearm who wants to run the game while sitting down after 27 years of standing.
Student David McKenna, who used to sling cards in Vegas, recalls a poolside lingerie party at the Hard Rock casino there. It featured girls wearing negligees and nothing else, if you know what he means. "But I'm not supposed to tell you that," he says. "Because what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
There is optimism here. Some of it seems born of desperation. After class, Janny Mason, a stocky, 35-year-old Peruvian with baby-blue eye shadow and blond highlights in her chestnut hair, rests behind the school on a wooden picnic bench left over from the building's primary-school days. The seat is ankle-high and abuts a wall painted blue with a smiling sun and a cockeyed rainbow.
Four years ago, she would have never thought she'd be here. She was practicing family law and was general manager of the chamber of commerce in Iquitos, Peru -- "in the jungle," she says. Then she and her husband split up, and he tried to take custody of their 2-year-old daughter, Alexandra. She strategically skipped the continent for South Florida with the toddler in tow to rent a bedroom from a friend of a friend. After crying for two straight months and maxing out her credit cards, she pulled her head together enough to apply at McDonald's, where she worked as a cashier for four miserable days before quitting.
Shortly after that, a friend introduced her to a Casino Princesa manager, who hired her as a cocktail waitress on the ship. A couple of months later, she moved up to working the slots, where she stayed for more than a year, when she and a surveillance manager named William Mason took a liking to each other. Company rules forbade such a romance. So she quit. On New Year's Eve 2001, the two married.
"My life in these four years is like a soap opera," she says, laughing. She'll be a perfect fit with the Seminole.
Janny just quit her most recent job managing property to be here, because working nights at the new casino would allow her to attend law school during the day.
"I know there's going to be a lot of sacrifice I'm going to have to do, with my daughter, my family, and everything," she says. "But that's the only way to get it."
Nearly an hour after class has ended, she returns inside to deal and play hands until the instructors nudge her and the few remaining students out the door.
The executive enters the unfinished hotel room and walks past the dust, plastic sheets, wood scraps, and construction worker napping on a plain board. Doug Pattison, president of the Hollywood Hard Rock complex, steps onto the balcony a dozen stories above the ground. He has black hair, an open face, and a confident, relaxed air. He might have made a good game show host in a different life.
The scenery from this perch illustrates some of the inherent challenges for this multimillion-dollar bet. In the distance, beyond a sea of trees, rises the hazy, jagged outline of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Nearer, just across State Road 7, is a dirt pile flanked by transmission shops and musty trailers hawking cheap cigs. Near the corner of Stirling Road is the chickee where a New Jersey man named Jim Archer sells "live, disease-free" turtles and plastic terrariums. To the north stretches parking for the thousand-odd construction workers who, just weeks from opening day, are toiling to ready this edifice, stirring little dust storms amid shells of what will be high-end shopping, nightclubs, an Irish pub, a Hooters. Just below the balcony stretches the grayscape of the casino rooftop, interrupted only by a few turquoise, rectangular skylights above the center bar.
"The view is better on the other side," Pattison says. As he leaves the room, the worker sits upright on his plank bed and blinks hard. On the other side, 48,500 vehicles a day sluice along Florida's Turnpike. This roadway, Pattison hopes, will be the casino's lifeline, carrying many of the 20,000 daily visitors to the casino. Not many of those folks will wander in from the street, and they won't abandon the old casino, he says, which will, for the time, remain open.
On this day inside the nascent casino, construction workers with "American by birth, union by choice" stickers on their hardhats scuttle around pathways of particle board that is laid over the maroon-and-gold carpet. Just off the casino floor, a worker in jeans and a white T-shirt sleeps on a roll of carpet amid the shrill beeps of moving equipment and the Black Crowes warbling on the radio.
When this behemoth is finished, the tribe projects that it, along with the Tampa version, will net almost $5 billion in revenue over the next ten years, with gaming accounting for only 60 or 70 percent of that, Pattison says. There will be a 5,600-seat concert venue, a spa, a steak house, and a fountain to spray a wall of water that will function as a movie screen. This building's ambition is Bugsy Segalian.
"We're not really competing with South Florida," Pattison says. "We're competing with Vegas."
Bold words for a facility plunked a full seven miles from the beach, on a drab stretch of reservation between Davie and Hollywood. When plans for the hotel commenced in 2000, the Seminoles evicted residents of the 300-home Candlelight Trailer Park. The tribe has already shelled out millions to widen State Road 7 to ensure that the droves would drive on fresh blacktop north from Stirling Road to SW 51st Street. In 2007, the Florida Department of Transportation, which had planned to expand the road as part of larger improvements, will reimburse the tribe up to $15.5 million. An FDOT spokeswoman said any overruns would be the Seminoles' to swallow.
Pattison contends that large groups -- business conferences and the like -- will compose about 30 percent of the hotel business. The remaining 300-odd luxury rooms depend on tourists and locals willing to plunk down $125 to $1,600 a night to hit that huge water flume into the pool and maybe steal some really nice towels.
Bill Eadington, a professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada-Reno, estimates that the Hollywood property will be among the 15 biggest tribal casinos in the country. Still, he expresses some skepticism. "If there's a mistake in there, it may be overinvestment in the hotel side," he says. "The question mark is, is somebody going to spend that kind of money to stay in a nice hotel room in the reality of a working neighborhood?"
He and other analysts express concern that the constraints of Class II gaming -- no blackjack, craps, roulette, or other games against the house -- will hamper the casino. Such wagering is prohibited by Florida law, which rules even on the reservation. Unless the clubs and bars prove a huge draw, the place will depend largely on dedicated gamblers.
"Once you get in the gaming business, start making money, you try to upgrade your property, and usually you make a big mistake," says Don McGhie, a Reno gambling consultant who recalls fondly the good ol' days when the Mob ran Vegas. "I think it's an ego thing. Once [tribes] start making money, they want people to think they've increased their social status. It's pretty easy to do. Banks, they won't loan you money when you start, but when you're successful, they throw that money at you. And people can't refuse it. It has a way of affecting you mentally. You start thinking you're right when it comes that easy.
"The type of person they hope to draw -- that's where they'll have their problem, the big spender. They're going to draw the same crowd they have now. If they just put a tent up, they'd make just as much money."
Adam Fine, editor of Casino Player and Strictly Slots magazines, gushes over a visit to the Tampa casino but concedes: "They have a helluva nut to crack. They've got to do some brilliant marketing."
One potential customer who will probably avoid the property? James Billie.
"I am what you call casinoed-out, bingoed-out," he says.
All things to all people is a tough niche to fill. Two of the bingo babes from Tampa congregate in the casino's upscale restaurant, Floyd's, around midnight, by which point it's a thumping nightclub. Mills and Wheeler sit at the bar, grooving to the Eurythmics, drinking Coronas.
"We're really dating ourselves," Wheeler says. She surveys the dance floor. Earlier in the night, when the DJ was spinning mostly early-'80s tunes, some folks managed to get up and shimmy. One klatch of women was so moved by Billys Idol and Ocean that they piled their purses on the wooden dance floor and shook their tail feathers in a circle in "Lord of the Flies" fashion.
But the action tapered off as newer tracks like Sir Mix-A-Lot's hoary "Baby Got Back" sounded. The floor nearly emptied when the DJ spun Snoop Dogg and Pharrell's "Beautiful," a tune that may well produce pregnancies when it's played at every high school prom in the universe this spring. Somehow, this place has made the young feel old.
"I expected it to be more crowded," Wheeler says to her friend.
"I expected it to be bigger," Mills replies.
"You know," Wheeler says. "You hear people hype it..." She trails off.
On a barstool nearby, a couple of 50-somethings take turns gyrating their bottoms against each other's crotches.