Seminole Classic breathes new life into smoky bingo hall

It was 1979 and James Billie had just been elected chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Toward the end of his first meeting, he ran across a written business proposal.


“It suggested we try putting on bingo games,” he recalled Thursday. “I didn’t have the slightest idea what they were talking about, but it said that we might be able to make some money at it.


“So I said we should try it.”


The site of those first bingo games — the spot that launched the Seminoles’ $2 billion annual gambling empire — revealed a makeover Thursday, including a new name: That old smoky bingo hall is now known at Seminole Classic Casino.


Pictures: Hollywood Beach Broadwalk


As part of $25 million in upgrades, it’s not as smoky any more. As crews upgraded the wiring and replaced the odorous carpet, they addressed customers’ No. 1 complaint by far and installed a new filtration and air conditioning system.


If you’re a homeowner who has recently swapped out a limping system for a brand-new one, you’ll understand what impact that has. At Classic, it will mean ewer players wearing surgical masks to protect their lungs.


The Seminoles allow smoking; casinos at horse tracks and dog tracks are prohibited from indoor smoking because of the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act.


GM Larry Buck noted the upgrades also include a new coat of paint everywhere, increasing the table games to 35 from 23, adding a slot area where players always get triple their player’s club points and an area with 29 slots that guarantees the highest payback available on each particular machine.


Unlike the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino across the street, Seminole Classic — formerly known as the Seminole Casino Hollywood — has the reputation as a locals place. Fridays (paydays) are the busiest night and more than a dozen staffers have worked at Classic for at least 25 years, cultivating a rapport with customers that other casinos envy.


“I see the same people here all the time,” said slot player Mark Ardolino of Hollywood, an auto-parts worker who first came to Classic in the 1990s to play bingo, long before the casino added slots and eventually worked out a deal with the state to provide blackjack and other table games.


Fearing they would cannibalize their own audience, the Seminoles considered tearing down the casino when the Hard Rock opened in 2004.


“That was our original vision, but keeping it was one of the smartest decisions we ever made,” Seminole Gaming CEO James Allen said. “It’s truly a valuable part of our business.” The Seminoles don’t disclose their revenues.


Billie, 68, noted that the Seminoles’ first foray into gambling came despite Broward County’s assertion that the operation was illegal and required legal proceedings that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.


“I’m thankful we had some of the best lawyers in the state,” he said. Tribal gambling now is a $27 billion a year industry.


The Seminoles built the first portion of the casino out of metal, in case the bingo hall failed and they had to convert it into a roller skating rink, Billie said.