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Former high-stakes, short-lived BC bingo hall is demolished

When the Big Cypress bingo hall opened in 1987, thousands of people came to try their luck at high-stakes bingo. (Tribune file photo)

BIG CYPRESS — The Big Cypress bingo facility – once touted as the largest in the world, but reduced to a vacant skeleton for the past several years – was recently demolished to make way for future development.

The 5,600-seat bingo hall, said to be the size of two football fields, opened with great fanfare in March 1987, even garnering a story in The New York Times. Most players were bussed to BC from cities around the U.S. But the bingo hall didn’t always hit the jackpot; it closed and re-opened numerous times before finally shutting its doors in the 1990s.

Players were drawn to the bingo hall’s generous cash prizes, up to $250,000, along with plenty of new cars to be won. Additionally, the lure of non-bingo activities, such as Dixieland bands, closed circuit TV and TV gameshow-type giveaways, proved to be popular. The idea was to change the image of bingo from a staid grandmother’s game to something as exciting as the Super Bowl to perk and retain guests’ interest.

The Big Cypress bingo hall in the process of being demolished in October 2020. (Courtesy photo)

The Seminole Tribe partnered with developers Richard Knowlton and William Van Horn, who invested $4 million to build the bingo hall. At the time the BC facility opened, the tribe already had three successful bingo halls in Hollywood, Tampa and Brighton. The Hollywood and Tampa halls were the most profitable in the country.

The tribe wasn’t concerned the BC bingo hall would take business away from Hollywood; the belief was if Big Cypress took business from Hollywood, it wouldn’t make a difference to the tribe’s overall bottom line.
The good times didn’t last long as financial issues plagued the outside entity that managed the hall. By April 1988 – barely a year after opening – the hall was deeply in debt and closed. When it reopened in September 1988 under new management, the raucous atmosphere and many of the extra-curricular enticements were gone. It closed again in February 1989 for renovations and reopened in April 1990 to coincide with the filming of a movie at the bingo hall titled “Arrive Alive,” which was never completed.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc throughout South Florida and tore the facility apart. It was repaired, but never used for bingo again.
Instead, the Seminole Police Department occasionally used the deteriorating, empty shell of the building for training exercises. In August 2014, SPD filled the building with a group of officers and police vehicles as they completed required Florida Department of Law Enforcement handgun training. The cavernous space of the bingo hall allowed plenty of space to hold different simulations at the same time.

Once demolition is complete by the end of November, the bingo hall will be replaced with a new preschool, senior center and an auditorium for special events. All facilities will have independent parking areas and access from both Josie Billie Highway and West Boundary Road. Construction is slated to begin in late 2022.

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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