They came to Glynn County in 2011 looking for land and economic opportunity, the coast of Georgia having provided the means of survival for their Creek ancestors centuries ago.
But the quest of the Kialegee, a Native American tribe numbering about 700 today, was in vain. They left with nothing.
Thwarting their aspirations for a reservation and sovereign state in Glynn County was Sen. William Ligon.
The Republican senator, who resides with his family in White Oak in Camden County today, had nothing against the Kialegee people. It was what they initially proposed to do with the 300 acres they sought to purchase on the Turtle River.
“My concern was the casino they wanted to build and the issues it could bring,” Ligon said during a recent telephone interview.
It was the original plan. The Kialegee would acquire the land and petition for sovereignty. Self-governing authority would remove it from the reach of local and state laws, including those prohibiting gambling operations.
Kialegees pitching the effort strayed away from the concept of legalized gambling after it exploded into controversy, but tribal leaders never ruled it out. As later described, the resort was to feature a 430-room hotel, restaurants, shops, golf course and boat landing. A multimedia heritage center that would operate much like Williamsburg, Virginia, was to be an important focus of Kialegee Town.
Those rooting for the Kialegee took a shine to the idea of opening a casino and resort in Glynn County, especially one within a stone’s throw of busy Interstate 95. How tempting it would be to motorists headed for fun and sun in Florida. To them it would be a goldmine, a magnet for tourists and a major hatchery for jobs and economic opportunity.
Supporters claimed it would create as many as 3,000 to 5,000 new jobs.
Ligon saw it as a sinkhole.
“When you have a casino, it can be damaging to local businesses in a 50-mile radius, especially with restaurants and entertainment venues,” Ligon said. “I know it’s a concern in Atlanta.”
In 1999 the Kialegee abandoned plans to open a multi-million dollar casino and entertainment complex in Hancock County, 100 miles south of Atlanta.
Ligon said it is not uncommon for casinos to comp food, entertainment and overnight stays for loyal guests.
Competition for tourists was only one of his concerns.
“Obviously you have your social costs with casinos,” he said. “You can see an increase in crime. You can see an increase in families wasting their money on gambling and having to depend on social services.
“It’s a horrible idea. It just doesn’t fit with the family atmosphere that’s been established here.”
Ligon contributed to the Kialegee’s retreat from the coast with the introduction of a bill in the Georgia General Assembly that would make it difficult for anyone, including Native Americans, to remove land from state authority. The Georgia Legislature would have to approve any transfer of authority.
While the Kialegee gave up on the land sale in the Golden Isles, it never lost sight of its goal of finding a means of supporting the tribe financially. It would be a while, though.
Efforts to open a casino in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, failed. Sites and frameworks of structures under construction there were abandoned following years of successful challenges by other Native Americans.
The Kialegee’s luck may finally have changed. At the beginning of July it signed a gaming compact with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The pact allows the Kialegee to build a casino close to Oklahoma City in partnership with the 14,000-member United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
The history of the Kialegee includes the removal of its ancestors from Georgia and Alabama starting in 1835 during the Trail of Tears.
The Kialegee Tribal Town is in Wetumka, Oklahoma.
Attempts to contact tribal leaders for comment were unsuccessful.
The Kialegees are not the first to express an interest in opening a casino in the Golden Isles. State-owned Jekyll Island has been pulled into the field of vision of Georgia legislators exploring for new and additional sources of revenue on more than one occasion in recent years.