Oklahoma's tribes contribute greatly to small cities, towns, some local leaders say
As Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma's tribes clash on how much gaming revenue should go to the state, tribal leaders have defended the status quo and pointed to the tribes' economic impact across the state and in local communities.
A study released last year said Oklahoma's tribes had a $12.93 billion impact to the state in 2017. Casinos are one of the main revenue generators for tribes, and they are located throughout Oklahoma.
For some city leaders in small, rural towns with casinos, tribal nations seem to play a key role in their success.
“If the Choctaws sold shop and packed up and left, this town would probably die,” said Oden Grube, the mayor of Durant in southeastern Oklahoma. “We might hobble along. And they probably depend on us in a lot of ways, too.”
For the past seven months, Stitt has pushed to renegotiate the state's tribal gaming compacts so gaming revenue can be taxed at higher rates than it has been since the inception of tribal gaming in Oklahoma.
The governor has said he is seeking a fair deal for all Oklahomans. The state has received about $1.5 billion in exclusivity fees from tribes since 2006.
Grube said Durant’s economy is “growing leaps and bounds,” much of which is directly tied to the Choctaw Nation, which runs one of the state’s largest casinos in town.
The tribe provides roughly 6,500 jobs in the area, she added. Those workers spend money in the town at local businesses, and the casino draws in visitors from other states who otherwise wouldn’t come to the town of roughly 17,000.
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The Choctaw Nation provided $2 million for Durant to renovate its airport, and Grube said they write multiple checks to the city government every year.
“We have a really good partnership,” she said. “They come to local restaurants, they gas up here, they buy stuff here. It is interwoven.”
Further east in the small town of Idabel, Mayor Craig Young said the Choctaw Nation spent $1.5 million in recent years to build the city a new fire department. The tribe also helps take care of some rural roads, he said.
In Young’s opinion, gaming is a large industry meant to make money, but what gets put back into the local community sets the industry apart.
“We’re a poverty area, and they have really supported us and been good for us here,” Young said. In large part, those visiting the casinos in McCurtain County are coming from Texas or Arkansas, he said.
This relationship is intentional, said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
“Unfortunately, the economics of rural communities have not been seen as a potential investment area,” Morgan said. “By default, tribes have picked up that mantel and become a driving economic force in rural Oklahoma.”
Morgan said the tribes enjoy working with local partners to keep jobs available in smaller communities “for the betterment of everyone.”
But others said they didn’t feel the impact as intensely.
Shawnee Mayor Richard Finley pointed to some of the same areas — employment, road maintenance, construction, local spending — as positives, but said the impact is hard to measure.
“It’s very, very difficult to quantify,” Finley said.
When the Citizen Potawatomi Nation does help build roads in the area, they're building around their land, he said.
Finley also pointed out the Nation doesn't pay sales taxes to the city or state — an issue that caused a yearslong dispute that ended in the tribe's favor. Shawnee doesn't get any direct revenue from the tribe, he said.
Asked what Shawnee would look like if the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's casinos didn't exist, Finley said not much would change.
"I think it would be essentially the same city that it is now," he said.
Heather Hulsey owns T-Box Antiques in downtown Shawnee. Casinos can drum up tourism in areas where people might not have otherwise come, but she thinks businesses like hers would still flourish without them.
“I look at it this way: People are always going to need food, people are always going to need clothing, people are always going to need stuff like that,” Hulsey said. “They’re not going to need the casinos.”
As for Stitt's dispute with the tribes, Hulsey disagrees with the governor that the tribes should pay more gaming fees to the state.
Even though most of the state's tribes are making money off gaming, they still have tribal members living in poverty, she said.
“I think it should be the other way around," she said. "The Native Americans should be telling him they want more money from him.”
The gaming compacts dispute between Stitt and the tribes has landed in federal court. The dispute centers on conflicting views of whether the state-tribal gaming compacts automatically renewed this year.
Kayla Branch covers county government and poverty for The Oklahoman. Branch is a native Oklahoman and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She joined The Oklahoman staff in April 2019. Read more ›
Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›