RESIDENTS LEFT IN DARK ABOUT CASINO PLANS
Sun Sentinel; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Aug 20, 2000;
The 60-acre park, encompassing 300 mobile homes and trailers, will be closed under the Seminole Indian Tribe's plans to build a $300 million casino and hotel on the site near State Road 7 and Stirling Road. The tribe also wants to acquire the site of the nearby First Seminole Baptist Church for the project.
The tribe announced its plans two months ago and said the project is scheduled to break ground in January. But neither the mobile home park's residents nor their lawyer have been told exactly when they will have to move.
The only clear sign that their lives are about to change dramatically are the large yellow X's placed throughout the park to map the proposed project.
"It's devastating," said Marie Smith, 71, who has lived in the park for 18 years with her husband, Paul. "I'm not ready to start packing boxes. That's not where I want to go at this stage in my life."
On Friday, Tim Cox, operations officer for the Seminoles, said a letter would be sent to residents within a couple of weeks giving them until Dec. 31 to leave the park. Cox, who is in charge of the project, said the tribe has not discussed compensation.
The owners of the 91 mobile homes say they face a financial burden because it costs $5,000 to $20,000 to move the homes to another location.
Many are fixed-income seniors who have lived in the park for nearly two decades and are not prepared to be uprooted.
"My wife just passed away in January, and I don't need this kind of aggravation," said resident Bill Henderson, 77. "I'm not at the age to get up and go. I don't have the money to get up and go."
What bothers residents most, they say, is that they haven't been officially told anything about the project or their fate.
Residents, including the park's manager, Bob Ramsden, first learned about the project in June when it was announced in the tribe's biweekly newspaper, the Seminole Tribune.
Since then, newspaper reports have been their only source of information. Ramsden said he is treating the information as if it were a rumor and is still taking reservations from potential residents.
Nearly half of the residents are seasonal French Canadians who won't return to the park until late October or early November. They are getting their information from Canadian radio and online news services.
"We are still waiting for them to tell us if its true or not," said Claude Boudreault, president of the Candlelight Park Mobile Homeowners Association, from his home in Montreal. "Everyone is upset. They don't know what's going to happen."
Louis St. Laurent, an attorney who has represented the homeowner's association for the past five years, has appeared on Canadian radio shows several times to update residents -- but he doesn't have much more information than the Florida residents staying in the park.
When he called the tribe's realty office, St. Laurent said, the head of the office, George Johnson, "basically slammed the phone on me when I asked him how much notice we were receiving."
Johnson declined to comment on any matters concerning the tribe.
St. Laurent contends the tribe is subject to mobile home law and is required to notify residents a year in advance that they will have to move.
If the tribe does not issue a one-year notice, Laurent said he would seek an injunction against the project.
In 1977, the tribe struck a 50-year lease with a company to open the park. Under the lease terms, the tribe had the option of renegotiating the contract after 20 years. In 1997, the tribe ended the lease agreement and paid the company monetary damages, said St. Laurent.
Cox said that when the tribe took over the park, the land was no longer designated for mobile home use and residents were given "revocable permits" to station their units in the park. He said residents signed an agreement that stipulated that they could be asked to move at any time.
"They had three years to react," Cox said. "The tribe is sensitive to the fact that they have to move, but to say the residents didn't know is just not true."
St. Laurent said he is aware of the revocable permit. But he insists that the contract residents signed with the original company is still legally binding and overrides the permit. He said the original lease agreement stipulated that the tribe must give residents one year to vacate the property.
St. Laurent said he's seeking adequate notice and compensation for residents to relocate their homes or the value of their homes.
"Those [residents], especially the elderly, can't afford to pay $15,000 to relocate and will lose their homes," St. Laurent said. "There is no excuse for leaving these people like this."
Cox said he does not believe the residents should be compensated. But, he said, "The final outcome will be up to the [tribe's] council."
Jim Shore, an attorney for the Seminoles, said he did not have a handle on details of the residents' agreement with the tribe. But he said, "We know that this is a reservation and is not subject to state law."
Cox said the tribe made residents aware in 1997 that it had taken back the land for development.
He said those plans now include the construction of a casino featuring bingo and electronic pull-tabs, and a 750-room hotel to be built in conjunction with Hard Rock Cafe. The resort would also feature a Barnes & Nobles bookstore and a major sports bar franchise, Cox said. The complex is set to open in 2002.
The money generated from the hotel and gambling attraction will help pay for college, homes and health care for the tribe's 2,644 members and help provide at least 1,000 jobs, Cox said.
"When you look at the economic impact and the number of opportunities this is going to have on South Florida, there's a lot more good coming out of this than bad," he said.
Cox said the tribe is completely justified in building the resort over keeping the park.
"The federal government had no problem with taking land [from Native Americans] for the betterment of its people," Cox said. "The tribe council has to think along the same lines."