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Friday, Aug 22, 2014
Commentary

From graves to one of the nation’s largest casinos

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Ever wonder how the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino came to be at its location on Orient Road just off Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County?

It’s quite a story, and it all starts with a string of beads.

Ray Goodrich was an amateur archaeologist and bottle hunter who was digging around with some friends where the Fort Brooke municipal parking garage sits today. He found a string of beads and what looked like a grave site, presumably a grave of a native Seminole Indian.

For two years the knowledge of the beads and the grave site was confined to Goodrich and his digging friends. But then he heard the news that the site was about to be developed.

Bob Martinez was mayor of Tampa in 1980. Martinez was building upon the development plan of his predecessor, Mayor Bill Poe. Poe conceived the idea of a Quad Block — a four-block massive redevelopment project bordered by Franklin Street, Jackson Street, Florida Avenue and Whiting Street. The Quad Block changed the face of downtown Tampa with the building of the One Tampa City Center skyscraper and the Hyatt Hotel (now the Hilton). The third part of the planned development was a $9.4 million city parking garage, which today is the Fort Brooke parking garage.

The city received bids for the parking garage in June 1980, and work soon commenced at the corner of Florida Avenue and Whiting Street. That’s when Ray Goodrich called a state archaeologist about his find two years earlier. Work on the parking garage stopped while archaeologists combed the site for artifacts.

The archeologists soon found more than beads. They found bones and what was clearly a cemetery — perhaps the largest cemetery of its kind in the state. The bones represented a mixture of white settlers and Seminole Indians, for this area was the site of the Fort Brooke military encampment established in 1824 which housed as many as 4,000 men during the Seminole Indian Wars.

With a third of the $9.4 million price tag for the garage paid by with federal funds, the federal government got involved, and its rules offered protection for artifacts of archeological significance.

The city was in a bind.

Work on the parking garage was halted, costing the city $10,000 each day. Instead of construction workers, archeologists combed the site. The Seminole Indian Tribe now deemed this site a sacred burial ground. A critical part of the redevelopment of downtown Tampa was in jeopardy.

Martinez and his staff met with officials from the Seminole Tribe to figure out a solution. They needed to find a parcel of land where the Seminole Tribe could bury the remains and create their own cultural site. A solution was found with a parcel of land at I-4 and Orient Road, and it was purchased for $185,000 in 1981. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the 8.5-acre site with a separate nation status for the Seminole Tribe, enabling the Tribe to sell tax-free cigarettes and operate a cash bingo hall.

The intent, though, and the understanding of the city, was for the Seminole Tribe to house the archaeological finds “in a shrine and cultural museum” on the Orient Road land. In addition to housing the remains, a plan described in The Tampa Tribune in May 1982 showed a proposed shrine that would feature “Indian arts and craft shops, alligator wrestling, thatched chickees (huts) and a school-oriented educational building.”

The agreement allowed the city to move forward with building the city parking garage, the delay costing $250,000. With the addition of the parking garage, the Quad Block was completed. The city buried the remains of 102 of the non-Indians in a mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery.

The newly designated reservation on Orient Road changed rapidly. The sale of tax-free cigarettes began in 1981, then bingo in 1982. The Seminoles had begun a statewide gambling enterprise in 1979, opening a series of bingo halls in Florida, and they brought one to Tampa in June 1982. On opening night 1,300 bingo players filled the Seminole Bingo Hall to capacity.

But cigarettes and bingo were just the beginning.

Today, the Seminoles own the Hard Rock brand, and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa at Orient Road is one of the largest casinos in the country. From slot machines to blackjack and poker, the resort draws thousands each day.

And it all began with the discovery of a single strand of beads.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at pam@pamiorio.com.

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