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11-08-02: Botkins bets on gambling to spur development?
The Daily Standard
BOTKINS - Las Vegas. Atlantic City. Botkins. Botkins?
    Village officials may be involved in some sort of talks regarding the possibility of siting a Native American-owned casino in the village.
    Acting on a tip to the newsroom, The Daily Standard this week investigated claims that the village is trying to become home to Ohio's first such casino operation. Based on talk on the street and the cryptic statements of some village officials, there appears to be some substance to the gossip.
    Some village officials have refused to confirm or deny the reports. In some cases, though, their silence spoke volumes.
    When asked specifically about the prospect of a Native American-owned casino landing in town, Village Administrator Mike Vanbrocklin did not hesitate to answer.
    "What we do in general, with economic development projects, is not to comment," he said. "It's pretty commonplace in any situation that any client is going to want confidentiality."
    Treasurer Ed Brown admitted that he has been asked about the issue by several village residents, but would offer no more, referring further questions to Vanbrocklin. When asked if he could refute the casino-talk as false, Brown said he could not.
    The village has a 50-acre undeveloped industrial park with utilities extended to the site and a new street stubbed onto the land. The property is on the south edge of town between I-75 and County Road 25A. Vanbrocklin said the town currently is not negotiating the sale of any part of the property.
    But a former village council member, who requested anonymity, said the vacancy of the industrial park is exactly the reason officials are considering the unique development project.
    Findlay Industries, the town's largest employer, has closed factories in other places and moved production to Mexico. Local officials worry the same could happen in Botkins and with dim prospects for traditional industrial development, they are willing to get creative to bring in new jobs and tax revenue, he said.
    However, current village council member Steve Woodruff, contacted by telephone Thursday evening, dismissed the story as a "coffee shop rumor." Woodruff, who claims to be 1/16 Cherokee himself, said he knows of no efforts by Native Americans to put a casino in Botkins.
    When told that Vanbrocklin and Brown would not deny the story, Woodruff stood his ground.
    "I've only been on council since May, but unless there is something I'm not aware of, I don't think there is anything to this," Woodruff said.
    Woodruff is the only council member who could be reached this week, despite numerous attempts.
    Mayor James King also was reached Thursday evening and asked to speak on the issue.
    "There is a lot of gossip going around. But at the same time, we have a lot of businesses looking at our park and some other ground we hold options on," King said. "Many times we don't even know the origins of those companies and when we do, the companies ask us not to comment."
    When asked if he would support a casino as a way to create jobs and bring in additional tax revenue, King said he would leave those decisions to Vanbrocklin, who heads the town's economic development efforts.
    When the newspaper attempted to delve deeper into the investigation, it met with resistance from the village. A request for copies of council meeting minutes from the last three months of meetings could not be honored at the village hall on Thursday because those records are not kept there, The Daily Standard was told by a village employee.
    The meeting minutes apparently are maintained at the home and insurance agency office of Brown. But when asked for the records, Brown said he first had to consult with the village's legal counsel. Brown said in 21 years in office, he has never been asked for copies of meeting minutes and wanted to ensure they are public records. The newspaper finally received the documents early today.
    The meeting minutes show the town is in the midst of making modifications to its existing enterprise zone. That could be a sign village officials are anticipating possible development and a tax abatement request. Council also has met twice in recent months in executive session to discuss a potential land acquisition and last month authorized Vanbrocklin to sign an option agreement on a piece of property.
    Details of those issues were unavailable this morning.
    Botkins is a village of about 1,200 that lies just inside Shelby County south of Wapakoneta. Ohio 219 meets I-75 on the east edge of town.
    There were only a few whispers of the casino story on the street Thursday. Several people approached at local businesses by a reporter said they knew nothing about the matter. A couple of them said they had heard rumors the village was looking to lure a Native American casino, but were unwilling to discuss the matter publicly.
    It is unclear whether Indian gaming is legal in Ohio. The state has no such casinos now, although there have been attempts in recent years to develop them in eastern Ohio.
    Native Americans are permitted to operate gambling facilities under the 1988 Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act, but only in states that have equivalent forms of legalized gambling. Ohio has a state lottery and horse racing tracks, but does not have any legal form of Las Vegas-style gaming.
    There are conflicting reports and opinions on whether Ohio's limited gaming options would allow Native Americans to exercise their rights under the federal regulations to open a casino. To run a full-blown casino operation with traditional Vegas table games, an Indian group would have to sign a tribal-state gaming pact with the state. Ohio officials have never inked such an agreement for gambling purposes.
    The federal regulatory act breaks gaming into three classes. Class I gaming would involve any traditional or ceremonial form of gambling that a tribe would typically engage in. There are no restrictions on this type of
    Class II gaming would include bingo and pull-tab games that are illegal in Ohio except when run for charity.
    Class III gaming is slot machines, table games and other traditional casino fare. Native Americans need a pact with the state to run Class III gaming.
    The act also says that Indian gaming establishments can only be operated on "trust land," which is land reserved for and owned by Indians but held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of Indian owners. There apparently are ways to get land previously held by a private owner declared federal trust land, but a records check at the Shelby County Tax Map Office revealed nothing unusual among the owners of land around Botkins and surrounding Dinsmore Township. All of the property along the I-75 corridor near the village's industrial park is locally owned; much of it is farms.
    To get land accepted into the federal trust program for gaming purposes, a tribe must get the approval of the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is the secretary's duty to decide if gaming on the newly acquired lands would be in the best interest of the Indian tribe and its members, and whether it would be detrimental to the surrounding community. The state's governor also must concur with the interior secretary's decision for the request to be approved.
    Ohio Roundtable, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy education and research organization, has argued against the expansion of gambling in the state for years. In a letter to state legislators last spring < just as officials were debating whether to allow video slot machines at the state's race tracks and whether to join a multi-state lottery < Ohio Roundtable President David Zanotti warned against expansion of existing gaming laws.
    "Most lawmakers are barely aware of the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act," he wrote. "The gambling industry understands and utilizes that statute in an aggressive strategy to expand gambling ... One thing is certain, tribal gambling concerns and their allies in the gambling industry are using every tool to expand legal definitions and land claims to open new casinos."
    Joining the Big Game or Powerball multi-state lotteries could open the door to Class III Indian gaming, he wrote. Since Zanotti wrote his letter, the state did join the Big Game.
    A group called Casino for the Mahoning Valley has tried and failed to get Gov. Bob Taft to sign a state-tribal gaming pact that would allow an Indian casino to be opened in the Youngstown area. In a letter also written while state lawmakers were looking at expanded gambling to meet a budget shortfall, committee coordinator Patrick MacKondy wished them luck in the efforts.
    "Expanded gambling in Ohio would help our state immensely," MacKondy wrote, adding that Taft has ignored "thousands of letters, e-mails, faxes and phone calls from thousands of casino supporters in the Mahoning Valley."


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