As written, the latest gaming bill introduced in the Alabama Legislature opens the possibility of gambling in Baldwin County. While some welcome the idea, others are pushing for change to the bill's language to keep a casino out of the county.

After years of speculation that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) want to bring a casino to OWA Parks & Resort in Foley, opponents say two loopholes in the bill offer the opportunity.

However, the tribe told 1819 News there are still no plans for a casino, but there are concerns about the latest bill.

"As we have said consistently, we do not have plans to build a casino at OWA," PCI said in a statement to 1819 News. "That said, we also know the proposed gaming legislation is obviously the product of hard work. However, we have well-founded concerns about how it will affect our Tribe and our businesses in its current form."

The latest gaming bill sponsored by State Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) lists locations for the Alabama Gaming Commission to issue licenses. While Baldwin County is not listed as a location, there are two options for the transfer of licensing.

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"They left two doors open," Alabama Policy Institute (API) president and CEO Stephanie Holden Smith told 1819 News. "In Baldwin County specifically, I know there are legislators who have voted for this type of legislation in the past in order to keep the casinos out of Baldwin County. But unless something changes in the bill, there are two different ways that a casino could be located in Baldwin County."

The provision would allow the commission to issue a license to another county if Houston or Lowndes Counties are not awarded a license by June 1, 2029.

"Those two licenses could be transferred elsewhere," said Holden Smith.

The second option would be a straightforward transfer. The bill states the commission may approve a transfer of a license, including changes to the owner or investors. The transfer can be made to a different county or municipality as long as the county or municipality approves the facility. The approval can be done by local resolution or countywide or municipal vote.

There are restrictions on where new casinos can be opened. A new gaming facility could not be within 50 miles of an existing gaming establishment.

Still, Baldwin County would be eligible for a transferred license. Specifically, the Mobile facility would be 58 miles from OWA, and the existing Wind Creek Casino & Resort in Atmore is 69 miles from OWA.

State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) said this provision is one of many he wants to question.

"I have already seen a number of things that would need to change to have my support," said Elliott. "As it sits now, no, it would not have my support and I think that's true for a number of other senators that would be crucial for this bill to pass."

"I don't really understand the logic there with the milage," Elliott continued. "What are they trying to do there? Obviously, you don't open up two Chick-fil-A's, one across the street from the other so, to the extent that it's one of those, 'let's not put one beside the other,' I understand that but sometimes there are other motives behind these things. You really need to take time and look behind those motives and find out what's really trying to be accomplished here."

State Rep. Alan Baker (R-Brewton) told 1819 News he believes the people should decide, but he also wants to hear more dialogue from the authors of the bill.

"To me, I am on the premise that the people need to be able to decide if they want gaming and if they don't want it and to what level," Baker said. "... I think we need to continue to discuss this going forward."

"There have been concerns that have been shared by some Baldwin County legislators, which I am part of that Baldwin delegation, which they want to move that from the 50 miles to 75 miles, or such like that," he continued. "So, I am very open to some of the considerations we might have to change the bill."

Holden Smith believes operators would want a casino in the largest tourist destination in the state.

"You can't recreate the beach," Holden Smith added. "So, if the door is open, the beach is always going to be a target just because that's our main place that people go as a resort area for the state."

Elliott maintains he does not believe it is in the cards to bring gaming to OWA.

"I still maintain I don't think that casino gambling is consistent with the brand that PCI has certainly tried to establish there but I can certainly understand peoples' concerns about that. I am not interested in having a casino in Baldwin County. I would want to make sure that the legislation, if passed, was very clear that that was not something we would have in Baldwin County."

While he doesn't believe PCI has plans to open a casino at OWA, Elliott said plans are often shrouded in secrecy, so lawmakers must pay close attention.

"You have to watch for that but it's true with any legislation," Elliott said. "You have to look at the words on paper and the motive behind that. It's a wise thing to do in the legislature to look at the reasoning behind something instead of just what it says in front of you because there may be some motive."

Birmingham attorney Eric Johnston, who has followed gaming legislation and drafted bills on other matters in the past, said he also has concerns about the bill. Johnston also pointed out that the Alabama Gaming Commission would have little oversight and its own law enforcement arm. Elliott said this is another example of why votes matter.

"These board members, this commission is appointed by elected officials and will be heavily influenced by the governor's appointments, who has more than any other top-ranked officials," Elliott explained. "So, the governor is going to have a lot of influence over the gaming commission."

Other issues Elliott believes should be considered are how existing gaming interests would be impacted and how new gaming interests could be expanded.

With the addition of multiple casinos, Holden Smith said she thinks it's important to point out that once passed, there are still many aspects to casinos that could be changed down the road.

"Overall, I think the people need to know that there are specific locations but they're not set in stone," Holden Smith said. "Once you create that gaming commission that can make the decisions on things like that, it's going to be very difficult to control and there is no other vote of the people, ever."

The bill would bring multiple casinos around the state, and Elliott said this bill is one of the most comprehensive he's seen over the years.

"I think this bill is very well written," said Elliott. "If their intention was to be comprehensive and to structure the legislation in a workable manner, then I think this accomplishes that goal. I would say to the authors and to the sponsors in the House, they've done a very good work getting a good framework together. Now we can start looking at the individual pieces and see if it's good for the people of Alabama."

"It is better than some gaming legislation that I have seen in the past," Elliott added. "But it is way broader than other things we have seen in the past, too. It is a significant expansion of gaming. We're not dipping our toe into the water; we're diving headfirst into it."

Elliott encourages folks to remember this is very much a process, and it is important to watch what is going on in the state legislature.

"Just because something's in the bill doesn't mean it'll stay in the bill. This will be a good civics lesson to watch things and see how it works."

PCI said it would continue to speak with lawmakers about concerns.

"We remain optimistic that we can have detailed conversations with legislators and make changes that will continue to allow us to create jobs, spur economic development, attract tourism dollars, and help our neighbors across the State in times of need," PCI stated.

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