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Resort-casino could mean thousands of jobs in South Carolina

Jobs have always seemed elusive in impoverished Jasper County on South Carolina's southern tip near Savannah, Ga.

Residents have waited decades for a $500 million container port to be built on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. And a retail complex requiring state incentives could have meant 2,500 jobs but was scuttled by lawmakers.

Now, local officials are pinning their hopes on a proposal for an upscale resort, shopping and entertainment complex that could create upward of 4,000 jobs.

"We've been shooting at the hoop for a long time and we're still hoping to score," said Bronco Bostick, who has been mayor of Hardeeville for four years and on the town council for 16.

The challenge is that the complex proposed for the Hilton Head Lakes development about two miles off Interstate 95 will include a casino -- something developers say is crucial for its success but also may be a roadblock to getting needed approval from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Such approval is needed under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that would govern the casino operation. The casino would be operated by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which would own the land on which the casino is built, said Joe Brinn, the managing partner for the development.

The complex plans call for what the developers hope will be designated a four-star hotel with an upscale indoor shopping arcade, golf and a convention center that can seat 2,000 people.

The casino "is the engine that makes the train run. It's the driving force," Brinn said. "It's not a huge part of it, but it's the central thing that will make it work. Without it, you couldn't put together an entertainment resort like this."

According to an analysis put together for the developers, the impact of the resort would be $270 million annually for the state's $15 billion tourism industry.

Haley's spokesman has said there are better ways to bring jobs than a casino.

"The governor has no intention of taking any action that would enable casino gambling," said Rob Godfrey. "She works every single day to recruit new jobs, expand existing companies and put South Carolinians back to work. However, she believes South Carolina does not have to settle and that there is a better way."

Brinn is hopeful Haley will see it differently when the developers lay out their plan that he said will create jobs with no need for state money. They hope to meet with her shortly.

"We don't have a date but we hope it's very soon. We hope we can present it to her in such a way that she feels comfortable supporting it," he said. "She ran on a platform of creating jobs, and this is a tremendous job generator."

The development would bring needed jobs to Jasper County, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 20 percent of the residents live in poverty.

When South Carolina outlawed video gambling more than a decade ago, the gambling industry conjured thoughts of convenience stores, bars and storefronts in strip malls lined with video poker machines.

The casino at Hilton Head Lakes will be like casinos at the famous Greenbrier resort in West Virginia or at Paradise Island in the Bahamas. There the casinos are part of the resort, not the total resort, Brinn said.

Now there's a state lottery in South Carolina, and casino boats leave from the state's north coast with plans to bring them to North Charleston as well. The boats sail outside the 3-mile state territorial limit before the gambling starts.

Analysts estimate the Hardeeville resort will draw more than 4 million visitors a year stopping off busy Interstate 95 at a location about midway between New York and Miami. Just over half that number visit nearby Hilton Head Island each year.

The location is ideal, Brinn said, with historic Savannah just over the river and the beaches of Hilton Head a short drive away. He said the resort could create a tourism hub in the same way that BMW created an automotive hub in upstate South Carolina and the Boeing plant is creating one in North Charleston.

The mayor is not concerned about the gambling issue in his community.

"I don't think people will be gambling any more than they have been gambling with Cash Three and Cash Four and Powerball," Bostick said. "If they really want to gamble they are still going to go to North Carolina, Florida and Atlantic City."