SANTEE (AP) — The owner of the once-vibrant but now nearly vacant Santee Outlet Mall continues to hope the Catawba Indian Nation will open a high-stakes bingo operation there.

Mall owner Herman Lischkoff says unlike the efforts of a decade ago, he is more confident bringing bingo to the dying mall could work.

The reason for his optimism? The tribe’s recent success in receiving state permission to run a high stakes bingo operation in York County, where the tribe operated a bingo hall from 1997 to 2006.

Prizes would be capped at $100,000.

The search for another use for the mall follows the closure of the latest store, lady apparel retailer Bon Worth, on Aug. 24. There is one store — Ingrid’s Antiques & Collectibles — and 48 vacancies in the 150,916-square-foot mall.

An Ingrid’s employee, who did not identify herself, said there are no plans to close the store in the immediate future.

Lischkoff sent a letter to the Catawba Indian Nation on Aug. 15, asking if the group wants to lease or purchase the building.

Catawba Indian Nation spokeswoman Elizabeth Harris acknowledged Lischkoff’s offer was received.

“We are focused on opening our location in York County and we aren’t pursuing another location in the state at this time,” Harris said. “If we are ready to pursue a second location, which we are allowed to do, we will contact him at that time.”

Lischkoff says he is hoping to receive a call in the near future.

“It would bring jobs into the location,” Lischkoff said.

Dr. Richard Porter, director of missions for the Orangeburg-Calhoun Baptist Association, said Southern Baptists and some other church groups across the state have consistently opposed gambling.

“I think it would be a detriment to the community,” Porter said. While “folks may come there and spend money,” those who can least afford to gamble will be hurt in the end.

“A lot of people who don’t have a lot of money to spend will hope to get rich quick and to make that big score,” he said.

Gambling will harm families and marriages, Porter said. “That urge to get the big lottery and win the big games is too tempting for some people.”

The Catawbas have a right to operate two bingo halls, including one in York County, under the tribe’s 1993 settlement agreement with the state of South Carolina. The Catawbas are the state’s only federally recognized tribe.

The Catawbas in 2003 proposed Santee as another location for bingo, initially seeking federal approval.

Their efforts were unsuccessful in Congress, sending the Catawbas to the state Legislature. Lawmakers refused to approve a high-tech operation that would be linked to high-stakes bingo games in other states.

The Catawbas ultimately sued over the matter, claiming the tribe could operate video poker in York County but would not do so if given the OK for bingo in Santee. The state Supreme Court rejected the tribe’s argument on video poker.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, introduced a bill about seven years ago to help make it easier to open a bingo facility in Santee. The bill was killed in the Senate.

Matthews said there is no legislation in the General Assembly at the current time related to the Catawbas or high-stakes bingo.

But Matthews said he still supports bingo in Santee.

“If they were still interested and the mall owner was still interested, then I would do whatever I could to make sure it happens,” Matthews said.

He thinks bringing bingo to Santee would be more favorably received now.

“I think people have begun to look at that differently from what they used to,” Matthews said. “While there are still some people opposed to it, I think it could be overcome.”

“Santee needs that kind of traffic coming to it,” Matthews continued. “If they open up bingo in Santee, that would help the mall and it would create some jobs.”

While opponents have been concerned about gambling’s impact on the poor, Matthews said the matter is one of freedom.

“I don’t think you can tell adults how they can spend their own money,” he said.

Lischkoff said without the bingo, Santee can forget about the mall’s viability.

“Right now there is no future to it,” Lischkoff said, referring to the outlet mall becoming a retail outlet. “As retail, you have to have a big draw. It just does not have it.

“If someone knew what I could do with it, I would be the happiest man alive.”

Lischkoff said he has put a lot of money into the property and it still costs him about $4,000 a month to just keep it open.

“You don’t aggressively market an empty shopping center,” he said. “People have called me, but they never followed through. It has not been able to attract people.”

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Information from: The Times & Democrat, http://www.timesanddemocrat.com