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John Klein: We're not Vegas, but some are betting casinos will help make Tulsa a travel destination

Tulsa will almost certainly never rival Las Vegas as the world’s gambling capital.

But Tulsa is continuing a decade-long casino expansion that makes it a significant player in the region.

“Tulsa is an up-and-coming travel destination, especially in this region, because we have a very diverse city with world-class museums, outdoor parks, extreme sports, equine shows, entertainment venues and excellent gaming entertainment resorts,” said Ray Hoyt, president of the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Osage Casino will open a $160 million expansion of its resort, including a 141-room hotel, on Wednesday.

That will give the Tulsa metro area three major casino resorts with a combined 1,078 rooms, making it one of the top gaming destinations in this region.

“Tulsa has definitely become a regional destination for resort tourism,” said Pat Crofts, CEO of River Spirit Casino Resort and Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant. “There’s no question we’ve earned a good reputation for resort hotel casinos. Tulsa is now a fairly well-known destination.

“First of all, these resorts have fantastic facilities. And we’re talking about internationally known brand names, such as Margaritaville, Ruth’s Chris and Hard Rock. People have noticed, and we’ve noticed it isn’t just folks from this region.”

In fact, River Spirit hotel, in its first 18 months, has hosted guests from all 50 states and several foreign countries. In addition, “our occupancy rates are far above what we expected.” Crofts said weekends are “almost always sold out, as are many weekday nights, too.”

The new facilities at the Osage Casino, which will include nearly 66,000 square feet of casino space, will give the Tulsa metro an estimated 366,000 square feet of casinos.

There’s currently an ongoing construction project at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa to add public space. The Hard Rock’s last major expansion was seven years ago.

Thus, almost all of the casino resort expansion in Tulsa has happened in the past decade.

“It has been a great decade of growth for all of us,” said Byron Bighorse, CEO of Osage Casinos. “The growth at all three of our Tulsa-area casino resorts is great for all of us. The success at each helps the others.

“And I really like the fact that it is tribal gaming. We’re real happy and excited to get our place open and join what the Cherokees and Creeks have been doing.”

Recent approval of dice and ball gaming (craps and roulette) is expected to grow Oklahoma casinos, along with an expected eventual expansion into sports gambling.

“All of these projects, from the casino resort hotels to parks such as the fabulous Gathering Place, along with the museums and entertainment venues — it all is working together,” Hoyt said. “There’s no question that Tulsa is an up-and-coming travel destination. We are building a very strong base of attractions, and the cool thing for Tulsa is how diverse it is and how affordable it remains.

“I think we’re going to eventually look back at the past decade as the time when Tulsa really arrived. There has been just so much happening. Now, we’re looking forward to the next decade and the next projects.”

Oklahoma has become a national leader in gaming, ranking second only to Nevada in the number of casinos. Nevada has approximately 334 casinos, while Oklahoma has about 134.

There are 24 states with gaming, and the industry grew about 3.4 percent last year with revenue of $40.2 billion, according to the American Gaming Association.

According to VisitKC, the Kansas City metro area has six casinos, three with full-service hotels. Kansas City, 271 miles from Tulsa, has 834 casino resort hotel rooms, and the six combined casinos have a total gaming floor space of 425,000 square feet.

The River Spirit (483 rooms) and Hard Rock (454 rooms) are larger than any of the casino resorts in Kansas City.

However, Tulsa and Kansas City are overshadowed by Tunica, Mississippi, a town fully developed by and for the gaming industry.

Tunica, about 410 miles from Tulsa, has more than 6,800 hotel rooms in its seven casino resorts. MGM Resorts International’s Gold Strike is the largest in Tunica with 1,200 rooms.

“I like the fact that our three resorts here in Tulsa are in different areas, offering different things,” Bighorse said. “We’ve been branding ourselves as Tulsa’s downtown casino, trying to play off all of that energy in downtown created by the opening of the BOK Center 10 years ago.

“Sure, technically, we’re not in downtown, but we are just four minutes away. We’re close enough to be a part, to feel a part of all of that economic development.”

All of these regional gaming destinations, including Tulsa, pale in comparison to Las Vegas, home to six of the 11 largest hotels in the world.

Las Vegas has three of the top four largest hotels in the world — all casino resorts — topped by No. 2 The Palazzo and the Venetian (7,117 rooms), No. 3 MGM Grand and The Signature (6,852) and No. 4 City Center (6,790 rooms).

Las Vegas, considered by many as the top tourist destination in the world, had 39.1 million visitors last year. Las Vegas McCarran Airport had a record 48.5 million customers last year.

“We’re very excited about what is happening in Tulsa because our attractions that make us a great destination, especially in the region, are so diverse,” Hoyt said. “We couldn’t be happier to be adding more to the casino and entertainment options this week.”


Local
'The situation is very ugly': Protest targets Betty Shelby's teaching law enforcement training class

Elected officials and faith leaders criticized the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office on Monday for allowing former Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby to teach a course on surviving critical incidents, saying it is a step backward for race relations in Tulsa.

“We’re saying that you need to get another teacher,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, backed by about three dozen protesters outside the Tulsa County Courthouse. Several of them held #BanBetty signs.

“You gotta get another teacher because Betty Shelby, you know, she had her ‘60 Minutes,’ and I remember what she said, ‘I would rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,’ and Terence Crutcher didn’t get an opportunity to get that statement. ... Folks are talking about there’s a scab on the wound. There’s no scab here because there’s been no healing.”

Shelby, now a Rogers County sheriff’s deputy, is scheduled to teach the class — titled “Surviving the Aftermath of a Critical Incident” — at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday.

Shelby, when she was a member of the Tulsa Police Department, shot and killed Terence Crutcher in September 2016 on a north Tulsa street next to his SUV. She was subsequently charged with manslaughter and acquitted eight months later.

The course is intended to “describe some of the challenges” that follow critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings. The training reportedly includes exposing participants to the legal, financial, physical and emotional aspects of critical incidents.

Goodwin questioned the survival aspect of the course during Monday’s protest.

“This class that Betty Shelby is being afforded the opportunity to teach, ... it is called ‘surviving the aftermath of a critical incident,’ ” Goodwin said. “And I think the words are real pretty, but the situation is very ugly.”

Goodwin remarked on Shelby’s acquittal, her hiring at the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office and receiving back pay from the city. Multiple speakers remarked that Crutcher did not survive their encounter.

“We feel that she created the incident,” Goodwin said. “Yet she gets to skip to the head of the class after she failed the test, and she gets to become the teacher.”

The course is accredited by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training for four credit hours and counts toward two hours of mental-health training, according to its synopsis. The seminar is free.

Shelby has instructed the class for other agencies. Goodwin said the course “has already been taught, word has it, at the Tulsa Police Department.”

Tulsa Police Sgt. Shane Tuell said Shelby has not taught the class for or at the department. Whether Tulsa police officers sought the course on their own was unknown Monday.

However, Tuell said a flier circulated at the Tulsa Police Academy advertised the course.

Most of those at the courthouse Monday protested not the training itself but specifically that Shelby was leading the instruction. Rodney Goss, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church, described the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office as “tone deaf.”

The Rev. Chris Moore of Fellowship Congregational Church said that “if we’re really serious about healing wounds — if that is more than just a marketing campaign — then we best get serious about the business of true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, for you cannot have one without the other.”

Moore also said that “training for law enforcement is desperately needed, but if you do tone-deaf things like this, getting a former cop acquitted in a high-profile, controversial verdict to teach the course on surviving a critical incident, an incident which many in the community feel she created with her own actions, then no amount of training is possibly going to rebuild broken relationships between law enforcement and portions of our community.”

Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton said he was supportive of Shelby’s instructional efforts. Walton, who has sat through the class, said it is intended to illustrate to law officers how an action, such as a shooting, can occur in “microseconds” and unravel for months.

“It’s not about opening wounds,” Walton said. “It’s about Betty Shelby teaching something that opens law enforcement’s eyes. If this was taught to the community, I think it would open (their) eyes to what law enforcement has to endure.”

Rogers and Tulsa counties sheriffs’ offices maintain that the class “does not pertain to the shooting itself, but instead the potential aftermath faced by law enforcement officers following a critical incident,” Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said in a statement.

“We want our personnel and those from other agencies that attend training at TCSO to be as prepared as possible for every aspect of a dealing with a critical incident,” Roebuck said.

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado declined to comment. CLEET representatives did not return a request for comment.


Government-and-politics
No specific threats to election system going into Tuesday's primary runoffs, Oklahoma official says

OKLAHOMA CITY — State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax assured voters on Monday that there were no specific threats to the state’s election system heading into Tuesday’s primary runoff.

Polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 7 p.m.

The top of the ballot features a hotly contested bid for the Republican nomination for governor, featuring former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt.

The winner will face former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, and the winner of the Libertarian runoff between Chris Powell and Rex L. Lawhorn in the Nov. 6 general election.

“There is no indication that there has ever been a compromise in vote counts in any state across this country,” Ziriax said.

But some bad actors want to interfere in elections in Oklahoma and across the country, Ziriax said.

The biggest threat comes from those who seek to undermine the public’s faith in the election system, he said.

There is an effort to spread misinformation, he said.

He encouraged voters to be skeptical of those messages and not to be discouraged from going to the polls.

“Go the polls and vote,” Ziriax said. “Vote tomorrow. Vote in the November general election.”

Oklahoma’s system is one of the most accurate and reliable in the world, he said.

“Your voter data is secure, and when you cast your vote tomorrow, it will be counted,” said Shelley Zumwalt, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

The state’s three recognized parties all have statewide runoffs, Ziriax said.

Independents are allowed to vote in Democratic primaries and runoffs.

Congressional and legislative runoffs are also on the ballot on Tuesday, along with other statewide runoffs and local issues.

Those seeking to find their polling place, confirm voter registration or view a sample ballot can use the online voter tool at elections.ok.gov.


Marijuana
Muskogee backs off on stricter medical marijuana ordinances. What have other cities done to address SQ 788?

MUSKOGEE — Citing a lack of desire to try “to go beyond the state,” the Muskogee City Council struck a proposed local ordinance that would have required local medical marijuana patients to obtain a license if they wanted to grow their own cannabis.

Although councilors in Muskogee voted Monday in favor of adopting limited regulations regarding State Question 788, some smaller municipalities across the state have taken a hardline approach and outright banned most commercial marijuana operations within their cities.

“The moral question of whether marijuana has a medicinal purpose or is good or bad was decided,” Muskogee City Attorney Roy Tucker said after Monday’s council meeting. “It was not up to us to make that decision. It was already made. What we needed to do was craft regulations that we would have for any other business, and so that’s what we did.”

Tucker said commercial entities will, as decided during a council meeting last week, still have to pay $750 annually for their licenses. But in deciding to remove all of the proposed ordinance language regarding home-growing marijuana, he and Deputy City Attorney Matthew Beese said they agreed that there was no benefit to the city to be more restrictive than what current law outlines.

Beese told the council that the unanimously-approved amended ordinance is “now in its purest form what it was intended to be, which is a business license registration.” He cautioned, though, that the law will almost certainly change when the Legislature goes back into session, which will mean the city will have to adapt accordingly.

“I just couldn’t be prouder to be a Muskogee citizen to see we’re not trying to keep out industry that is going to happen,” resident Billy Sanders said during his public comments to the council.

Sanders, a medical marijuana patient advocate, said he signed up to express his outrage over what he said were unfairly restrictive home-grow rules but instead praised councilors for listening to public concerns.


Important links:

'I started sobbing uncontrollably': Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority starts approval of patient licenses

CBD shops proliferate around Tulsa amid medical marijuana legalization, but not all will get in the THC game

It's hard to keep track of all the medical marijuana players. Get to know them here.

Marijuana 101: A Q-and-A for those who've never inhaled

Marijuana is still federally illegal, despite what SQ 788 did. What do Oklahomans need to know?

What happens now if you're caught with pot? Enforcement of new law impeded by past statutes, experts say

Oklahoma Watch: Medical marijuana will be a cash-only market, with hassles for all

Cities, counties begin dialogue on zoning, other details of medical marijuana


Unlike Muskogee, jurisdictions such as Elk City, Okemah, Sulphur and Yukon have opted to prohibit all commercial marijuana-growing and wholesale operations within their city limits. Marijuana storage facilities not in a retail outlet are also banned in those cities.

Businesses in Elk City and Sulphur cannot operate within 1,320 feet of schools, libraries, museums, playgrounds, child-care centers, churches, parks, public pools or other recreational facilities; any type of correctional center, halfway house or rehabilitation center; or another medical marijuana-related store.

Okemah limited the distance to those locations to 600 feet, while Alva and Yukon imposed a 1,000-foot limit.

Activists such as Sanders and Oklahomans for Cannabis, whose co-leader helped write SQ 788, have argued that such laws violate the spirit of the state initiative and likely will lead to court challenges.

Beese said the original idea to have home-grow permits came about based on an attempt to comport with earlier emergency rules adopted by the state Board of Health. But once the board removed language about home-grow operations, he said, “we backed off the same way.”

“There’s no sense in trying to go beyond the state. We never wanted to go beyond what the authority was that they gave us,” Beese said. “That’s just asking for a legal challenge to what you did.”

The Muskogee City Council discussed medical marijuana in a meeting last week, determining then that marijuana dispensaries should be able to operate only in the central business district or in areas already zoned for commercial use.

Commercial growing and processing businesses would also have access to those parts of the city but can additionally open in agricultural or industrial zones. Wholesale and storage facilities for medical marijuana, Beese said, can only set up shop in the latter zones.

Beese said the rules treat marijuana entrepreneurs just like those of any other business.

“For some of those cities who are trying to enact strict regulations, I think that does their citizens a disservice by essentially buying them a lawsuit, which in all likelihood is coming based on the state of the law right now,” Tucker said.

The Sulphur Times-Democrat reported last week that city councilors there amended the city’s ordinance to bar retail shops from opening along the city’s major streets. Elk City, according to the city’s website, did the same, saying retail permits will not be granted to anyone proposing to open on or adjacent to Old Route 66.

Okemah residents must pay $2,000 per year for a home-grow permit, according to its ordinance, which also says permittees will be subject to inspection by a municipal employee. Prospective dispensary owners must pay the city $3,000 annually.

Elk City’s home-grow permit requirements are essentially identical to Okemah’s.

In Yukon, the City Council established a $600 permit fee for retail establishments. Those seeking to grow in their homes must pay the city $240 annually.

Yukon’s and Alva’s councilors included a prohibition on marijuana businesses being open on Sundays — a restriction that appeared in now-defunct draft state rules approved by the Board of Health.

“To those cities, I say please consider what you’re doing,” Sanders said. “The 57 (percent who voted for 788) will not remain silent. It is a cannabis revolution, and we will not stop until we’ve got what is our right.”