EAGLE PASS, Texas (KXAN) - While state lawmakers have squabbled over gambling in Texas for decades, a small casino operation has quietly popped up along the Mexican border, helping a local Indian tribe win big.
Twice a week, the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas is able to open the doors to its health clinic to serve its thousand patients. People like Koki Alizondo often cannot afford treatment.
"I have diabetes," said Alizondo. "I take some pills. That's why I'm here. I came to ask for a refill."
Watch KXAN's "In Session. In-depth." this Sunday at 8:30 a.m. to hear more from state lawmakers about the fight for casinos and how the Kickapoo tribe will stay competitive in the gambling world.
The tribe foots the bill with money it makes from Lucky Eagle Casino, which it finished in 1996. It sits on the southern edge of Maverick County outside Eagle Pass just feet away from the Rio Grande.
"If we didn't have revenue from the casino, we would be in one heck of a mess," said Nick Gonzales, Community Health Services director.
Before the casino, many members lived in shacks, camping near a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico. Now, revenue from the 1,858 gaming machines, 230-seat bingo hall, 12 poker tables and handful of food and entertainment venues means new housing for the tribe.
"I just moved in," said Priscilla Alizondo, standing on the front porch of her new, modern home. "I don't have to pay rent. The only thing I worry about is the utility, and the tribe pays half of that."
The money also pays for schooling, roads, even a sewer system. Plus, there are 650 jobs for the tribe and other locals, as visitors flock to the site of the state's only casino.
The majority of guests are Texans - most from within 100 miles of the casino. In the last four years, the weekly number has doubled to 120,000 - the main reason behind the casino's expansion.
"The current facility was not large enough," said Robin Miller, the casino's general manager. "It's a very exciting time for both the tribe and the casino with the expansion."
The tribe will open a hotel and nearly double the size of the casino this spring:
- 1,200 more gaming machines
- 250-person buffet
- 2 new bars
- 249-room hotel
- 200 more employees
More money means better services for the tribe. For Koki Alizondo, it means a new clinic with extended hours.
"I'd have a hard time going into town to see a doctor," he said. "It's a lot easier for us."
Lucky Eagle exists because of federal rules. None of its profits goes to the State of Texas, since it is an Indian casino.
However, the Texas Gaming Association estimates the state is losing around $1.5 billion a year in tax revenue by not legalizing casinos itself. Some legislators say such a move could bring money for schools and other state-funded programs, but gambling bills have failed session after session.
As lawmakers once again consider the issue, there is concern it could hurt the Kickapoo tribe. Their local state lawmaker - freshman Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass - has filed legislation to keep them competitive.
If the state – and eventually voters – pass gambling and grant licenses for casinos, the tribe would be able to have the same level of gaming as other Texas venues and be able to open another casino on its land, under Nevarez' plan.
"We welcome the ability of other people to get involved in gaming so long as the Kickapoo has the opportunity to do that," he said.
Of course, that would be in agreement with the state, which means Texas would get some of the gaming revenue from the tribe - a win-win, according to Nevarez.
What Texans think about casinos
In a scientific statewide poll , KXAN found strong support for casino gambling in Texas: 64 percent of people support casinos in the state, 28 percent opposed it, and eight percent were unsure.
But the bill behind gaming in Texas has plenty of criticism - even in Eagle Pass.
"We're Christian, so we don't go to no place like that," Maria Cicero, one resident.
Ignacio Zozo, another local, said, "Once you spend the money, you probably won't get it back. Chances are, you're probably not going to hit the jackpot and get the money back."
The survey showed the biggest concern was gambling addiction with 28 percent, followed by crime with 23 percent and financial problems with 18 percent.
But the economic impact the Lucky Eagle Casino has made on the community has been significant. The Eagle Pass Chamber of Commerce says the casino is the area's third largest employer. The number of businesses from tourism has swelled over the last decade, and hotels are full most weekends.
"(Tourists) come to town and visit our shops, our restaurants, they fill up with gas," said Sandra Martinez, the chamber's executive director. "So that's very good for us."
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