Glamour, glitz and The Wall

Hard Rock: The Seminoles' new hotel-casino beckons with a wealth of attractions. But some in the Tampa community say the gambling palace doesn't pay its share.

March 14, 2004|By Marego Athans and Mike Adams | Marego Athans and Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - The first clue comes at the hotel entrance, where guests pull on gold, guitar-shaped door handles to get in.

Inside, high above the check-in desk, there's a provocative message from the rock group the Doors: "Hello, I love you, Won't you tell me your name?"

It's a short walk to the casino, where music pulsates as images dance across video screens and the walls are adorned with rock memorabilia. By now it's clear: the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is nothing like the dingy, smoky gambling emporium the tribe formerly operated here.

For customers looking beyond the video gambling machines, poker and bingo, the new complex serves up cocktails, dinner, even dancing under a twirling silver disco ball.

There's Big Joe's Sports Bar, named after the legendary 14 1/2 -foot, 1,800-pound alligator that lived on these lands and died in 1999 at an age believed to be well over 100. Here, customers can watch sporting events on 13 screens while playing video gambling machines built into the granite bar.

A few steps away is Floyd's - named after the rock band Pink Floyd - which serves such entrees as char-grilled Black Angus filet mignon and New Zealand rack of lamb in a cavernous room with a two-story martini glass, a giant yellow- and orange-lit chandelier and waitresses in hot pink off-the-shoulder tops. From the ceiling hangs a silver disco ball that begins to spin late at night when the tables are pushed aside and the room becomes a nightclub.

In this room alone, the finishes cost about $8 million, including a 15-by-20 foot "wall" (evoking the band's hit album "The Wall"), made of imported art glass from Italy, said general manager John Fontana.

"The idea is to make it world class," Fontana said. "Four-star, four-diamond is the goal, which is rare in the casino industry. You could take it anywhere in the world and put it next to any gaming facility."

In the middle of the casino, bar patrons can sip their drinks and watch rock stars performing on a string of plasma televisions suspended on a tower.

A mannequin wearing a stage costume worn by Elton John sits in a glass case on the casino floor, and a 1970s black leather "Super Fly" trench coat once owned by Elvis Presley sits in a wall case. The gold record issued to Capitol Records when the Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers" album earned $1 million hangs near the poker room. All around are sketches and photographs of rock stars.

A business with the scope of the new Seminole complex - especially one so near residential neighborhoods - would usually take years to put up, and only after developers had secured a long list of government approvals.

But the casino was finished within a year because it was built on one of the Seminole reservations, and tribal land is exempt from local and state regulations.

"You blinked and it was up," said Barbara Merritt, who lives nearby and worries about increased traffic, crime and potential environmental damage to sensitive wetlands. "It's a wild card there. They can do whatever they want."

The casino "went up three times quicker than any other building in the state of Florida," said Mike Wells, who lives close by. "If the building falls in on you, you can't sue them. It's a sovereign nation."

The new 12-story, 250-room hotel and the casino, with its 1,800 video gambling machines, are expected to create nearly 2,000 jobs in the Tampa area. That translates to $20 million to $25 million a year in payroll, Fontana said. In addition, the casino buys food, linens and other goods and services in the community.

"The financial impact in Hillsborough County is huge," he said. "The tribe has always attempted to be a good community member and be as cooperative as they can."

Because tribal governments are exempt from state or local taxes, some local leaders and residents say the casino will drain public resources without contributing its share.

If run by a private company, the new hotel and casino would owe roughly $2.3 million in local property taxes, said Warren Weathers, chief deputy property appraiser in Hillsborough County.

It would also pay a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms, said Gene Gray, director of economic development in Hillsborough County. And it would pay sales tax of 7 percent on revenue from lodging, food and other items.

"The community doesn't benefit in any way," said Jan Platt, a county commissioner who opposed the casino from the start. "The only people who benefit are the construction people and architects, the ones who built it."

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