ORLANDO – About 200 Seminole Tribal members who live off the reservations gathered at the Sapphire Falls Resort in July 17-19 for an orientation of sorts. The attendees came from within the state and as far away as Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, New Mexico, Minnesota and Oklahoma to learn what benefits and programs are available to them.
Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. welcomed the group July 18 and thanked them for taking time off to get together and gain useful knowledge about Tribal services.
“We want to help you have the ability to tap into programs that are available to you,” he said. “Ask us questions, we are here to work with you and assist you.”
The crowd wasn’t shy and almost immediately began asking questions. Subjects varied during the open forum, including alternative ways Council is considering increasing revenue to the Tribe, how they plan to groom future Tribal leaders and how culture can be learned off the reservation.
Presentations and Q&A sessions for every Tribal department followed, starting with a gaming and Hard Rock update by Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and Chairman of Hard Rock International. He talked about the success of the Hollywood and Tampa Hard Rock casinos and reported that Tampa brings in a sizable chunk of the Tribe’s total profit.
“The most profitable casino in Las Vegas is the Wynn, which makes $400 million profit annually and is the number two casino in the U.S.,” Allen said before he noted that Hard Rock Tampa is number one.
Allen gave an update on the new construction in Hollywood and the continued expansion in Tampa. Hollywood will have 1,400 guest rooms, private villas, ample meeting and convention space, a new Hard Rock Live, up to 55,000 square feet of retail space, a comedy theater and 14 restaurants. The estimated completion date is the summer of 2019.
Tampa’s expansion is being done in two phases. The property will have 798 guest rooms, seven restaurants, nearly 8,000 square feet of retail and 57,000 square feet of convention space. A low rise should be completed in April 2018 and a tower is slated for completion in 2019.
Allen gave an update of the Atlantic City Hard Rock project, formerly the Trump Taj Mahal, which should open in May 2018. Donald Trump spent $1.2 billion to build the property in 1990. The Tribe bought it for four cents on the dollar in March.
Since the Tribe’s credit rating was just upgraded, lower interest rates on loans are available which leads to millions of dollars in savings. Most U.S. gaming companies pay 4 to 5 percent plus on loans.
“The Trump Taj Mahal lost money every year not because it wasn’t busy, but because the interest on the loans was 14.75 percent and 17 percent,” said. Allen, who noted the Tribe just borrowed money at a far lower interest rate. “That shows the investment community believes 100 percent in the Seminole Tribe, its leadership, the business, the exclusivity that we enjoy in Florida and obviously the ability to expand on a global .”
Pete Hahn followed with a presentation on personal finances. He said the Tribe’s standard deduction is 25 percent of Tribal members’ income for taxes.
“Each of you should be in a higher tax bracket,” he said. “We can deduct more so you don’t owe taxes in April. We can help you work out the best tax bracket for you.”
Presentations about Tribal finances, the health plan, education programs, housing, business loans and a Board update filled the rest of the day’s program. Throughout the day, people in the culture room kept busy beading, carving and making patchwork.
Sally Josh and her daughter Niki traveled from Anadarko, Oklahoma for the meeting. She was hoping to get updates on policies and procedures, see family and friends and learn more about culture.
“I learned more beading skills,” Josh said. “I’m going to take back all this information to family members who were unable to attend the meeting.”
Megan Yescas has lived in St. Paul, Minnesota for five years and appreciated getting information about services and Tribal business activities.
“I’m proud to be a Tribal member and have access to all the opportunities they provide for us,” she said. “I went to the Hard Rock Café in Iceland and was the first Tribal member to go there. The Icelanders knew all about us.”
Julie Bush brought her son Conary Yescas, 16, to the meeting.
“He’s enjoying seeing his family,” said Bush, who is not a Tribal member. “He is interested in his Tribe and this has been very informative and good for him.”
Carla Cypress, of Pembroke Pines, lives off the Hollywood Reservation because there are no homes available. She said the meeting was helpful.
“I’m picking up new things and learning what’s available. I’m a new homeowner and need some advice and help,” she said.
Naples liaison Brian Zepeda was pleased to see so many Tribal members from such far distances in attendance and said things are going in a positive direction for non-residents.
“That all the executives and leaders came shows the extent of the support. The Chairman made great effort to reach out to non-residents out of state. They are not forgotten,” he said. “I was born a Seminole and I’ll die a Seminole and I’ve never lived on a reservation.”
Larissa Tucker and her son Kian Madrid traveled from Honolulu, Hawaii, the furthest distance of anyone. Despite living far from home, Tucker comes back often to Hollywood and Brighton, where she checks on her cattle. She had some issues addressed and was glad she attended the meeting.
“I’m glad I got to voice my opinion and they listened to me,” Tucker said. “It’s good to see everybody and connect with family and friends. I’m glad Council did this for us.”
Chairman Osceola’s goal for the meeting was achieved as information was shared and individuals’ questions were answered.
“To see the smiles on their faces gives us gratification that we know we are making a difference,” he said. “That’s what we are here for, to assist Tribal members and make a difference in their lives.”