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ROCK HILL — Business is hopping at the Super Bi-Lo on Cherry Road in Rock Hill. A steady stream of cars buzzes in and out on a recent Friday afternoon.
But Donald Rodgers, chief of the Catawba Indian Nation in York County, prefers to remember a time when the site brought in money, not for a grocery chain, but for South Carolina’s only federally recognized Indian tribe, the Catawbas.
On busy weekend nights in the late 1990s, church vans and tour buses rolled in from North Carolina and Georgia. And the Catawba’s bingo hall, sitting where the Bi-Lo does now, swelled with more than 1,000 eager bingo players.
Then, in 2002, came the S.C. lottery. As attendance at the bingo parlor dwindled to a mere 250 to 300 people, profits were cut in half, effectively killing the tribe’s only revenue stream.
“You have a better chance of winning at bingo, but people wanted to play the lottery instead,” Rodgers said with a shrug.
Rodgers and some other Catawbas, about 1,000 of whom live on a York County reservation, say the state-run lottery continues to be the proverbial thorn in their side.
After the lottery and other factors took down their bingo operation, the tribe sued the state in 2004, claiming that the lottery put them out of business. The case was dismissed earlier this year.
Yet the tribe is still hoping to get state approval — or federal approval — to offer high-stakes bingo, a type of video poker that would be more profitable than traditional bingo.
Tribes in other states are allowed to offer the high-stakes game, an electronic form of bingo played by people in several states simultaneously.
“Like everything else, bingo has progressed. It’s changed with technology,” said Jason Harris, secretary/treasurer of the tribe’s executive committee. “No one wants to come in and play the little cards, the church-style bingo of the past.”
A 1993 agreement with the state allowed the Catawbas to get into the traditional bingo business but prohibited them from offering prizes of more than $100,000 or offering other games.
The Supreme Court’s dismissal of the Catawba’s case earlier this year ended hopes of a legal remedy. The tribe holds only faint hopes the Legislature will grant it permission to offer casino-style bingo.
“The state doesn’t want anyone else in the gambling business because it is in the gambling business with its lottery,” Rodgers said. “When I go around and talk to people, they say they’d like to see a full-scale casino here. The people want it. The politicians don’t.”
But lawmakers, including Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said it’s not that simple.
Hayes, who was in on the negotiations about the 1993 agreement, said the Catawbas weren’t promised a money-making gambling operation by the state. “I don’t think there’s any merit to the argument that the state owes them anything,” he said.
Additionally, Hayes said his constituents feel video poker had a corruptive effect on the state before it was made illegal in 2000, and they don’t want it to return.
“What they’re proposing is video poker. And I’m opposed to it whether it’s the Catawbas or anyone else who wants to run one,” Hayes said. “People remember what video poker did to the state. ... We don’t want that type of gambling or any big gambling back in South Carolina.”
The Catawbas also have a financial black cloud hanging over their head. For a few years before Rodgers was elected chief, the tribe stopped receiving some of its federal dollars because annual audits, required by the U.S. government, were not performed.
Now that the finances have been cleared up and federal aid is flowing again, Rodgers plans to turn his attention to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. The congressman has offered to help the tribe get federal approval to offer high-stakes bingo.
Hayes is opposed, as is Gov. Mark Sanford, who has said the tribe should not try to leapfrog over state government to get out of the 1993 agreement.
But the Catawbas, wary of a state government that they say took their tribal land in the 19th century, say they’re ready to try their luck with the federal government.
“It’s like I tell my son about fishing,” Rodgers said. “You throw the line out there, and if they bite, good. If they don’t, go fish in another pond.”
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.