Tunica-Biloxi scratch Texas restaurant project, proceeding with Georgia 'barcade' plans

By Raymond L. Daye

    While its flagship enterprise weathers the twin storms of increased competition and a sluggish economy, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe has set sail in waters outside of Avoyelles Parish and this state.
    Unfortunately, the seas outside of the Bayou State have not been calm, either.
    In January it was announced that the Tunica-Biloxi had partnered with the Tom+Chee restaurant chain to operate seven franchises in the Houston area. As reported here -- and, apparently, nowhere else -- the announcement was a surprise to tribal officials who had never been presented the proposed partnership, much less granted Tribal Council approval to it.
   Tribal Chairman Joey Barbry said the Tom+Chee venture “is no longer an active project.”
   While the tribe has decided to two-step out of Texas, it still has Georgia on its mind.
   The tribe joined an effort to breathe new life into a failed condo development in Decatur, Ga., near Atlanta.
“Barcade” project”
    Barbry said the tribe is moving forward with its partnership to turn the Panola Slope property into a resort with restaurants, bars and 425 video gambling machines. The plan almost immediately drew fire from critics ranging from local officials up to  Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal was quoted in print and broadcast media as saying the project looks too much like a casino for his tastes.
The project, dubbed a “barcade” because it is similar to a kids-game video arcade, has been called a casino by another name. Developers disagree.
   Georgia is one of 10 states that do not have a casino within their boundaries.
   The project was proposed in February and “deferred” by the DeKalb County Planning Commission to allow developers to address questions.
    Two items related to the development project were on the commission’s May 26 meeting agenda, but were withdrawn prior to the meeting.”
    “That means it is gone,” a Planning Commission spokesperson said.
    Tribal Vice Chairman Marshall Sampson said the project “is not gone. We are restructuring it so that it conforms with existing approvals and there would be no need for additional approvals.”
    The project will still include the controversial “barcade”  element, but Sampson said the  center will comply with all laws of DeKalb County and the State of Georgia.
    The development would have three restaurants, an outdoor entertainment venue, meeting rooms and shopping outlets, in addition to lodging units and  the 425 video games.
    The video machines would not offer cash payouts, but rather tickets that can be redeemed on-site for drinks, dinners, lodging, etc.
“Camel’s nose”
   While technically the payment-in-vouchers steers clear of violating state law, critics of the proposal say it is the “camel’s nose in the tent” that will eventually lead to full-blown Las Vegas-style casinos in the Peach State.
   State law also limits the number of video game machines in a location to nine, but allows local governments to authorize more. At this time, the most machines in any location is 14.
   The developer of the project is APD Solutions, owned by Vaughn Irons. Irons chairs the DeKalb Development Authority and had no problem getting the County Commission’s unanimous approval when the proposal was first presented in December. Irons sold the property to Red Alligator LLC, a Tunica-Biloxi company, for $6 million.
    Sampson is Red Alligator’s CEO. He said the intent is not to bring casino gambling to Georgia, but rather to share this area’s famous cuisine and culture at what he believes will be a destination resort.
    He said he wants to give visitors to the “barcade” a “great time and great entertainment.”
    There is no chance that the Panola Slope resort will be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and end up being an Indian casino once it opens.
    “The Tunica-Biloxi have no cultural or historic ties to Georgia,” Sampson said. “In this case, we are just like any other developer and have to abide by all the same laws.”
    In short, just because the tribe owns the land does not make it “tribal land” and thus part of the tribe’s sovereign nation.
    Meanwhile, back in Georgia, Irons has been spinning the proposal as something akin to “Dave & Buster’s” entertainment centers, which are popular in many areas of the nation. He said the “barcade” will create 130 jobs and bring in more than $46 million in economic impact in its first year.
    “Panola Slope will be a one-of-a-kind paradise destination in Atlanta, if not the Southeast, targeting a moderate-to-wealthy income clientele looking for the ultimate in luxury and seclusion,” Irons told the DeKalb Planning Commission in July 2014 -- prior to the project being approved and then deferred.
    If the project goes through, and is as successful as developers envision, Avoyelles will benefit as the parish’s largest employer benefits.