TAMPA — Ten years after their humble hotel and bingo hall on Orient Road morphed into the glitzy Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, members of the Seminole Tribe and company executives marked the occasion with a tribal ceremony and a jackpot for area charities.
“I never dreamed that today it would look like this,” tribal chairman James E. Billie said at a Tuesday ceremony. “Here we are.”
The facility at Interstate 4 and Orient Road is now the sixth-largest casino in the world. It is the fifth-largest private employer in the Tampa Bay area, with more than 3,300 on staff and an annual economic impact of $592 million. The 12-story hotel has 250 rooms, and the casino, larger than five football fields, has more than 5,000 slot machines, 110 table games and 50 poker tables.
“Over the next 10 years, you’ll continue to see the property grow,” said John Fontana, president of the complex. “The demand is there for more product, and our owners have a lot of faith in us and in the community.”
But the optimism comes at a time when Florida is approaching a crossroads in its gaming history.
The state Legislature is considering sweeping changes to gambling in the Sunshine State. Global gaming giants are seeking to establish huge destination resort-casinos in South Florida, and the state’s pari-mutuel industry also wants to be able to offer more than the poker rooms that augment horse and dog racing and jai-alai.
A statewide referendum in 2004 allowed Las Vegas-style slot machines in existing peri-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Following that action, then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature approved a compact with the Seminoles that gave the tribe the exclusive right to banked card games such as blackjack in addition to traditional Las Vegas style slots instead of the bingo-based slots previously offered.
The state, in turn, got a cut of the take.
Expanding gambling around the state could presumably weaken the tribal casinos’ allure, but James Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International and chief executive of Seminole Gaming, isn’t panicking.
“The casino industry has this way of trying to create a lot of excitement,” Allen said. “If you look historically, whether it be here in state of Florida or throughout United States, bills always start with everything in it for everybody. And then obviously as the process gets navigated, you’ll end up with something that hopefully is beneficial to the tribe and beneficial to the citizens of the state of Florida.”
The five-year deal on the expanded offerings at tribal casinos, part of a 20-year compact with the Seminoles also approved by the federal Department of the Interior, expires next year.
On Tuesday, politics was set aside to celebrate the day an older Sheraton Four Points and a cafeteria-like game room became the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Tribe members conducted an alligator procession, which symbolized prosperity. The facility handed out $10,000 checks to representatives of four area charities, with that amount to continue annually for the next 10 years.
The beneficiaries were the DeBartolo Family Foundation; Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts; Metropolitan Ministries; and Hands Across the Bay.