If the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians opens its proposed gaming facility in Jones County, it won't be the first house of chance to litter that deeply religious portion of the Pine Belt.

Club Eleven was a bootlegger supplied bingo and blackjack hall on Highway 11 between Laurel and Hattiesburg, a haunt for ne're-do-wells in the 1950s before it burned to the ground. Dixie Mafia king-pen Mike Gillich managed Club Eleven, sold the liquor and fixed the games according to Chet Nicholson's book, "Dream Room."

Whether memories of such illegal joints still haunt the citizens of Jones County, or social mores outweigh hospitality, or leaders reject it on public policy grounds, opposition to the Choctaw venture includes Gov. Haley Barbour, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper and Jones native State Auditor Stacey Pickering.

The fight over the new Choctaw gaming facility is between two leaders looking out for the best interest of their people.

Gov. Barbour - who refers to the project as a "slot-parlor" - consistently opposes gaming expansion in Mississippi, while supporting established gaming areas as legal and legitimate businesses that pump millions of dollars of revenue into the state coffers, and bring non-gaming investments like golf courses, shopping centers, and hotel-restaurant-resorts. Barbour seems to oppose the Choctaw facility on some of the same grounds he opposes a lottery, that it: targets lower income individuals, brings little to no additional economic development, and cannibalizes other casinos to the detriment of state tax revenue.

Miko Beasley Denson, the Tribal leader, seeks to combat the national recession's impact on his 10,000-person tribe by expanding their own revenue stream. The Golden Moon Hotel and Casino in Neshoba County has been idled to a weekend only endeavor; the Geyser Falls water park is on hiatus. The Tribe's nongaming industries (including printing, advanced manufacturing for unmanned aircraft and geo-spatial services) provide a 6,000-person work force with an annual payroll of more than $100 million. Those industries have not been immune to the recession, so Miko looks to this $18 million investment into the Jones County facility to employ 250 people.

Barbour believes this is a bad deal for Mississippi. Denson believes it is necessary for the Choctaws.

The lynchpin in this fight is the Tribal Compact signed by Gov. Kirk Fordice with the Choctaws that enabled their gaming opportunities on Tribal lands held in trust before a certain date. When the Choctaws considered a casino in Jackson County on lands that did not qualify under the Compact, they sought local buy-in and needed agreement by Barbour. A Jackson County nonbinding referendum to support the casino, which Barbour publically opposed, failed.

But in Jones County, the land falls under the Compact and the Tribe does not need the permission of the state.

Mississippi's nuclear option would be to challenge or invalidate the Compact, which might jeopardize the entire Mississippi Choctaw gaming industry.

Flashback. Nearly two decades ago, an advisor accompanied then Chief Phillip Martin to Las Vegas to meet with financiers and operators for the new Mississippi Choctaw gaming endeavor in Philadelphia, or so told me one of the advisor's former business partners. The story goes something like this:

They arrived and met with their liaison to the group. Martin had grown to trust the liaison and felt they could work a deal. Once all the principles assembled in the conference room, the liaison left to do other business and the Las Vegas folks began hammering out details, which to Martin looked more and more like a raw deal for the Choctaws. Finally, Martin pushed away from the table and walked out of the room, took the elevator down, and called for a taxi. His advisor rushed after him saying not to scrap the deal, that they would get their liaison back and straighten out everything.

The story goes that Martin walked around his advisor, who is white, three times looking him up and down from head to toe. Martin said, "You are my friend, but this is how I have to look at you. This is how my people have to look at any deal we get."

Martin and the advisor returned to the room, the liaison returned to supervise the deal, the Choctaws got what they wanted and the Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos in Philadelphia are the result.

While I join with those who oppose the Jones County facility as bad for Mississippi, I would likewise oppose yet another example of breaking faith with a Tribal people. We (non-Indians) have enough broken treaties in our history. And while we might not always agree, I look forward to a day when a Choctaw leader does not have to walk around us three times to examine the deal.


Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.