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Seminole Classic Casino turns 40

Bingo hall paved way for Tribe’s gaming success and Indian gaming

By: Sallie james

HOLLYWOOD — The paper bingo card wasn’t much to look at, but the Lucite-framed $500 winning ticket from the Seminole Classic Casino’s second day in operation was a tribute to Seminole Gaming’s humble beginnings.

The casino celebrated its 40th birthday on Dec. 15.

“This is very historic because this was the first Native American high-stakes bingo establishment in the country 40 years ago,” said Tara Backhouse, after she accepted the artifact on behalf of the Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum during a special ceremony at the bingo hall. “They really pioneered Indian gaming in the country. The Tribe paved the way for Indian gaming across the country.”

The Seminole Classic Casino in Hollywood celebrated its 40th anniversary on Dec. 13. From left are Jim Allen, Seminole Gaming CEO and Hard Rock International president; Sharon Carrero, a Seminole Classic employee since day one in 1979; Edward Aguilar, Seminole Classic Casino general manager; and David Carrol, Seminole Gaming senior vice president of human resources. (Photo Brett Lyons/Seminole Classic Casino)

The card was donated by player Rae Jean Salik.

“What we are celebrating today is really about everything that’s changed over the years,” Classic Casino general manager and Seminole Tribal member Edward Aguilar said as hundreds of devoted bingo players clapped and smiled. “Not just for Native gaming but in regard to the Seminole Tribe and what it’s offering to its people today. For me to be a part of this, to be part of the history of the Tribe today, it’s an honor.”

The casino also honored Sharon Carrero, who has been a Classic team member since day one when the venue opened on Dec. 14, 1979.

Forty years ago, the Tribe took a big risk when it opened the popular bingo hall at 4150 State Road 7 in Hollywood.

Then-Chairman James E. Billie opened the bingo hall in December 1979, not knowing if the initiative would succeed or fail. One plan was to convert the building into a skating rink if the bingo experiment tanked.

Today’s noisy crowds are proof of its enduring success.

Inside, bingo players wait for the words that mean money: “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for bingo?” a voice booms across a loudspeaker.

The crowd roars and the fun begins.

But it all began as a big gamble.

When Chairman Billie took office in 1979, he saw a huge opportunity in bingo, even though Florida law only allowed nonprofit bingo halls to open two days a week and have a maximum jackpot of $100.

The Seminoles opened the bingo hall anyway and became the first federally recognized Tribe to operate one on a reservation.

The Seminole Classic Casino in Hollywood turned 40 in December. (Photo Kevin Johnson)

When it opened, then-Broward County Sheriff Bob Butterworth immediately tried to shut it down.

The Tribe sued the state, claiming sovereignty rights protected them from state interference by the U.S. government. The legal war began to rage.

After years of court battles, the existing state laws regulating bingo were ruled irrelevant because of Tribal sovereignty.

In 1981, the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit sided with the Tribe, ruling it had the right to operate the high-stakes bingo hall, which ultimately opened the door to Indian gaming throughout the United States.

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in another case – California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians – that federally recognized Tribes could operate casinos outside state jurisdiction because of their sovereign status and that states could not prohibit them from doing so.

Today, the Tribe’s foray into gaming and its astounding success has been life-changing for Tribal members, who are able to now enjoy a much higher standard of living than generations before, Aguilar said.

Edward Aguilar, general manager of Seminole Classic Casino, presents a framed winning bingo card from the bingo hall’s second day of operations in December 1979 to Tara Backhouse, collections manager at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. (Photo Brett Lyons/Seminole Classic Casino)

“It’s been an endless journey and with the evolution of Seminole Gaming where it is today being a global enterprise it’s just an amazing thing to be celebrating,” Aguilar said.

It’s important to remember that bingo was the catalyst that allowed the economic engine of Indian gaming to grow, Aguilar said.

“(Gaming) funds cultural programs and social service programs so the younger generations of today don’t have to grow up in the poverty that their parents did,” Aguilar said. “It’s easy to forget the place in history that this place has. It really changed everything.”

Sallie James is a freelance writer who has covered South Florida news for several years for a variety of media publications.