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State gambling deal with Seminoles may be boon for landowners

A state compact reached last month to allow Las Vegas-style gambling at the Seminole Tribe's casinos could spur major development on and around tribal reservations.

In negotiating the deal, which still faces political and legal challenges, the tribe announced its intentions to expand the Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Hollywood and Tampa and its casinos in Coconut Creek and Immokalee, said tribe spokesman Gary Bitner. Tribal leaders also have discussed expanded casinos and resorts on the Big Cypress and Brighton reservations, though no projects have been approved by the Tribal Council.

Among the landowners who stand to benefit from any development are companies in which Krishna Lawrence is president. Lawrence, who is not a tribe member, is a friend of Tribal Council member David Cypress. In recent months, Lawrence companies have bought and sold hundreds of acres of land near three of the tribe's reservations.

In Hendry County, Lawrence's Greco Roman Holdings, Inc. last month completed the sale of 500 acres of land for $5.5 million, a gain of $3.8 million in seven months. Greco Roman received the property in an April trade with the tribe for a value of $1.7 million.

Lawrence companies still own about 330 acres next to Big Cypress, more than 500 acres adjacent to Brighton and a recently acquired commercial building across from the tribe's original casino on the Hollywood reservation, land records show.

Cypress also has acquired land, receiving 534 acres adjacent to Big Cypress in a trade with the tribe completed this month.

"These are not dumb people. They're not in the altruistic position of just buying land," said Lawrence's attorney, Joel Hirschhorn of Coral Gables. "Obviously, they're hoping something is going on. You can't fault them that they want to be smart investors."

Cypress did not respond to a request for an interview, and the tribe did not answer specific questions about the land transactions. Bitner did say the tribe "looks at hundreds of development opportunities every year, including projects on and off its reservations."

In a series of articles last month about the Seminoles, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on the close relationship between Lawrence and Cypress.

Lawrence described Cypress as a "great friend." The two bought a boxing gym in Hollywood, which Cypress just traded to the tribe for the 534 acres, and were directors together in two companies.

Lawrence's landscaping business, Five Points Corp., received $18.7 million from the tribe from January 2006 through this May. Five Points works primarily on Big Cypress, where David Cypress has been the elected representative on the council for nearly two decades.

The Sun-Sentinel also reported on property transactions involving Cypress, Lawrence and the tribe. Land records filed in recent weeks provide new detail on some of those deals.

Greco Roman received 514 acres next to Big Cypress in an April trade with a tribal entity, S.T.O.F. Holdings Ltd. Lawrence told the newspaper he needed the land to meet environmental requirements for wetlands to develop an adjacent 315-acre ranch owned by one of his companies.

In the exchange, the tribe received a Hollywood office building owned by Greco Roman. It was considered an even trade, with the building and the land near Big Cypress each valued at $1.7 million.

In a June interview, Lawrence told the Sun-Sentinel the tribe came out ahead. "I'm sitting here with some swamp land," he said. "How much is that worth?"

At the trade value of $1.7 million, the land Greco Roman received worked out to $3,307 an acre. In September, the company sold almost 300 acres to S Ranch Properties, LLC for almost $3 million, or $10,000 an acre.

Greco Roman sold another 200 acres to the same buyer for $2.5 million in November, according to recently filed land records. The company kept about 15 acres on the southwest corner of the property.

Lawrence incurred expenses before the sale and is "going to wind up paying a lot of taxes," said his attorney, Hirschhorn.

Council member Max Osceola Jr. told the Sun-Sentinel in October that despite the resale value of the land, he still believed the April trade was good for the tribe. He called Lawrence "an entrepreneur."

Lawrence has said he plans to build housing for tribal employees on the ranch his company owns next to Big Cypress.

Property records filed in December in Broward County detail the trade Cypress made to S.T.O.F. Holdings for 534 acres in Hendry County.

The tribe received Warriors Boxing gym, which Cypress bought with Lawrence for $350,000 in 1997. Lawrence later sold his interest to Cypress.

Asked at a 2002 court proceeding who paid for the gym, Cypress testified, "Assistance from me to myself from the tribal funds."

The tribe's newspaper, The Seminole Tribune, reported the recent trade as an exchange, the gym for the land, plus an undisclosed amount of cash.

Deeds filed this month show a $1.2 million difference in the value of the properties — the gym at $2 million and the land Cypress received at $801,000.

The property Cypress received is northwest of Lawrence's ranch and abuts the reservation. The tribe did not answer questions about Cypress' plans for the property.

In October, Osceola told the Sun-Sentinel, "He hasn't told us, and we didn't ask."

The tribe also would not disclose the appraised value of the gym it received.

"Before the tribe trades or purchases any property, appraisals are done by qualified, independent appraisers" and reviewed by the tribe's real estate and legal departments, said tribe spokesman Bitner.

When the gym trade came before the council in October, Cypress voted in favor of it, the Sun-Sentinel reported last month. The council has no rules that would prohibit council members from voting on matters involving themselves or family members.

Cypress supported the April property trade between the tribe and Lawrence and introduced a council resolution for an easement on reservation land for a road Lawrence wanted to build to his ranch, records show.

Hendry County Planner Vince Cautero said neither Lawrence nor Cypress had submitted any development plans for their properties.

The tribe's compact with the state, which allows the Seminoles to offer blackjack, baccarat and lucrative Las Vegas-style slot machines in return for payments starting at $100 million a year, is expected to be an impetus for development.

The Seminoles are already in the midst of a $120 million expansion of their Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and have announced preliminary plans to turn their Coconut Creek casino into an entertainment complex, with a hotel up to 24 stories and 1,500 rooms and retail, restaurant and office space.

In recent years, the tribe has discussed a casino resort on Big Cypress, which currently has an air-conditioned tent with slot machines.

Tribal officials also have considered expanding their casino on the Brighton reservation and adding a resort with a 300- to 500-room hotel, two championship golf courses and a marina on Lake Okeechobee.

Hirschhorn said he did not know what, if any, plans Lawrence had for the land his companies have acquired but said some of it is wetlands and panther habitat that cannot be developed. Lawrence's companies recently bought four more properties near tribal lands in Broward and Glades counties.

In September, Greco Roman purchased a pawn shop on State Road 7 in Hollywood for $1.1 million. The property is across the street from the Seminoles' original casino on the Hollywood reservation and in between the gym and the Delaware Chicken Farm & Seafood Market property, owned by S.T.O.F. Holdings.

In November, another Lawrence company bought 523 acres just east of the Brighton Reservation and County Road 721 in Glades County for $4.8 million. The company also purchased two homes there for $220,000 combined.

In the same area, S.T.O.F. Holdings in April bought 286 acres west of County Road 721 for $6.2 million. Tribal officials did not answer questions about their plans for the property, but former Brighton Council member Andrew Bowers Jr. said he pushed for the purchase to build housing for tribal members.

Peter Franceschina can be reached at pfranceschina @sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5503. Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin @sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4510. John Maines can be reached at jmaines@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4737.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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