The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska continues to edge toward plans to open a casino in Carter Lake, despite a legal challenge from the City of Council Bluffs.
Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the tribe, said tribal leaders are working behind the scenes to keep tribal members informed of proposed casino details.
“We’re moving forward,’’ he said last week. “We’re evaluating and weighing our options.’’
After a decade of lawsuits, appeals and legal reviews, the National Indian Gaming Commission said in November that the tribe can put a casino on 5 acres of land it owns in Carter Lake. In December, Council Bluffs City Attorney Richard Wade filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking a ruling that the tribe does not qualify to use its Carter Lake property for a casino.
He challenged the gaming commission’s decision that the Carter Lake site qualifies as Ponca “restored lands’’ after the tribe regained federal recognition nearly three decades ago.
The complaint says the Ponca casino would compete with existing state-licensed gambling facilities in the Bluffs, which draw millions of visitations each year across the Missouri River from Carter Lake and Omaha. Council Bluffs receives about $3 million in fees and taxes from the operations annually. The community also receives about $8 million a year in charitable contributions from the casinos .
White has said the tribe intends to develop a project similar to one it proposed in 2007 that called for a casino with 2,000 slot machines, 50 table games and a 150-room hotel within minutes of downtown Omaha. Wright said it was “unfortunate” that Council Bluffs filed the lawsuit in an attempt to block the Ponca casino.
“They didn’t try to talk with us,’’ he said. “We’re always open to talk.’’
Wade’s legal complaint targeted the federal Department of Interior and the Indian Gaming Commission. A commission official declined to comment on the litigation last week.
There are 506 tribal gambling facilities operated by 244 tribes across 29 states, according to the Indian Gaming Commission. Gross tribal gambling revenue hit $31.2 billion in fiscal year 2016. It represented a 4.4 percent increase over the previous year.
“The industry has seen growth over the last five years,’’ said Mark Gaston, a spokesman for the Indian Gaming Commission. “Many tribes game or seek to game on their Indian lands ... as a form of economic development. Gaming creates jobs and generates revenue for tribes.’’
Unlike Iowa, Nebraska does not permit casino gambling. Under federal law, tribes may offer gambling on land they own, as long as gambling is legal in that state.
The Ponca casino issue has simmered since the Indian Gaming Commission said the Ponca land could be used for a casino in 2007. That decision was overturned by a federal lawsuit filed by Iowa, Nebraska and the City of Council Bluffs. Three years later, a divided 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and ordered the case to be reviewed a second time by the gaming commission.
The tribe of the famous Chief Standing Bear lost its federal recognition and reservation land holdings in 1962. Tribal leaders regained federal status in 1990 and began rebuilding a council and governmental structure. The tribe purchased the Carter Lake land in 1999.
The tribe currently operates a tobacco shop at the site on Avenue H just off Abbott Drive.
More than half of the tribe’s 4,100 enrolled members live in Nebraska and Iowa. The tribe has offices in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk and other cities. Revenue from a casino resort would allow the tribe to provide better services to its members and other native people it serves, Wright said.