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FLOATING CASINO SETS SAIL

Tuesday, July 4, 2000
By BRIAN HICKS Of The Post and Courier staff

SUMMERTON - The video poker machines weren't even cold when the Mermaid appeared, like a mirage, on Lake Marion Saturday.

Carrying roulette wheels and flying a Confederate-style flag, the 110-foot Magic Mermaid Casino ship was a colorful - and ironic - sight for sore eyes.

Following two days of historic change in this state, after the end of video poker, the lowering of the Confederate flag, it was ... back to business as usual for South Carolina.

"We thought our ship had come in," said T.J. Milgrim, one of the owners of Polly's Landing in the North Santee area. "Of course, this morning someone said, 'There it goes back out again.' "

The casino ship, brought in by a group called the Southern Cherokee Nation, sailed in with the intent to open for business under laws that allow for casinos on reservations.

The group is buying 120 acres along the lake in North Santee.

But before the ship could drop anchor and the first gambler could drop the first dime, state law enforcement officials brought it all to a stop. For now.

"Department of Natural Resources agents found it and alerted us," State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Hugh Munn said Monday. "We basically told them `If you open up, we're going to arrest people and start seizing equipment, possibly including the boat.` We told them to move on. They said they were going to stop in Charleston for gas and head back to Jacksonville."

The ship set sail Monday morning, promising to be back. This is not over, of course.

The gambling boat, a sister ship of the Victori Casino ship at Little River, pulled up to Polly's Landing Saturday afternoon. The federally unrecognized tribe, which uses a modified version of the Stars and Bars as a flag, plans a Dollywood-style family theme park and casino boat gambling as part of a proposed 120-acre reservation around North Santee.

Chief Gary Ridge of the Southern Cherokees, claiming sovereign rights to operate on the land, brought the boat in and said that, in all, the tribe has paid about $7 million for land east of Interstate 95 on the north side of the lake.

Landing owners Milgrim and Paul Carlton said they have sold their 8 acres of waterfront campgrounds to the tribe; all that's left is signing the closing papers.

"They asked us to stay on as managers," Carlton said.

Most people at the campground, including some nearly full-time residents, were pretty happy to see the glitzy ship pull up - even though it initially did get stuck in the mud.

"I ain't ever seen a boat half that size in these waters," said Darrell Blakley, a local resident.

"Let them in," said Larry Olson, who, along with his wife, has had a camper parked within view of the docks for years. "People ought to be able to spend their money how they want to."

Carlton said only one out of about 200 people he's talked to since Saturday questioned what gambling might do to the neighborhood.

Milgrim said if the weekend was any indication, gambling meant economic development.

"We were swamped with tourists," she said. "Revenues in our store tripled in one day, just serving food to the onlookers."

DNR agents came across the stuck boat Saturday evening and immediately inspected it for watercraft violations. Finding none, DNR called in SLED.

They found plenty wrong: 175 slot machines and a dozen gaming tables. Get out of here, SLED said.

Ridge said he wants the state to grant the tribe recognition so it can operate a casino boat and build an amusement park. But Gov. Jim Hodges has not responded to the request in the month since Southern Cherokee Nation sent it.

The group has applied for federal recognition because it can't run gambling operations without it. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Gary Garrison said without recognition, the tribe also cannot put its lands into a trust.

"They are gambling on the fact that they will be federally recognized," Garrison said. "Buying the land doesn't mean anything. All they are is a group of individuals who have bought land. They may or may not ever be federally recognized."

Tribal recognition can take years, Garrison said. It took Little Shell, a Chippewa group in Montana, 109 years to gain that recognition, he said.

Ridge said the 4,000-member tribe, which fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, never lost its federal recognition since it signed a cease-fire with the federal government at the end of the war.

Garrison said that doesn't hold any weight with the group's recognition by the government.

But Southern Cherokee Nation, which promised to keep the campground open, already has a boatload of fans. Newly gambling-deprived fans.

"Bring our boat back," Stan Volker, a Polly's Landing resident said to no one in particular. "It'll save me a trip to Georgia."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

 


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