Tallahassee Democrat editorial: Gretna shouldn’t bet its future on a casino

2015-06-02 05.04.13 pm

June 1, 2015

Gadsden County used to have a thriving local industry in shade tobacco, which was a business to be proud of — if you didn’t mind the lung cancer, heart failure and other diseases it caused its customers.

Casinos won’t kill you, although they offer ample opportunity to hurt yourself. But, as with tobacco, there are limits to how much the government should do to protect us from our follies.

Right now, the local governments of our neighboring county and tiny Gretna are betting heavily on what looks like a legal long shot. There’s a comparatively modest card room and horse-racing operation off Exit 174 on I-10, with plenty of land around it for a hotel and casino resort complex.

If the state permits slot machines there, the $20 million already anted up by the Poarch Creek Tribe and its investors would rise more than ten-fold and transform the economy of Florida’s only majority-black county.

The project got a small boost last week when a panel of the First District Court of Appeal ruled that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation should issue a permit for the operation. Gadsden voters approved gambling by a 63 percent majority in a 2012 referendum.

But a 2-1 opinion by one panel of the 15-member appeals court is a thin reed to hang a big project upon. It beats losing, but the case will surely be appealed to the full DCA and Florida Supreme Court — to decide whether a 2004 constitutional amendment authorizing slots at pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties means other counties can vote on them.

Track owners in Palm Beach and Lee counties would like to get out of the costly horse and dog business and go for the more profitable slots. The Seminole Tribe, whose casino compact with the state is expiring this year, also has a big stake in not seeing more competition popping up all over Florida.

Gretna is a long way from becoming the gambling center of the Panhandle but city and county officials are, understandably, hopeful about Creek Entertainment Gretna.

They envision 850 to 1,000 jobs, and maybe another 1,000 being created in businesses that might be attracted by the slots operation. They see millions in property tax revenues for schools and county operations. They see 39 percent workforce participation in their community now, meaning 61 percent of Gretna-area residents have little hope of a brighter future.

They see what the casino operators want them to see. The gambling business is based on the glittering promise of free money and good times. Come on in, try your luck, have some fun and you might get rich. Mentally, you know the house always wins — it has to, to stay in business — but the casino sells the happy illusion that, hey, it could happen to you.

That’s why they call it “gaming,” not “gambling.” Even the Florida Lottery says “play,” not “bet.” The Gadsden operation is called “Creek Entertainment,” not any of those beware words like “casino” or “betting.”

Some local officials went over to Atmore, Ala., to see the Wind Creek Hotel and Casino. That’s a sort of Potemkin village due north of Pensacola, not far from Mobile, and Gadsden officials seemed duly impressed with the tourism attraction in the middle of the cotton fields. But Atmore already had some industry, like concrete and farming products, not found around Gretna.

All those jobs and tax revenue the gambling promoters promise sound wonderful. But if Gretna developers somehow prevail in the court case, local government should lock down the numbers in writing.

After construction, a casino and resort complex will need some computer technicians and experienced hospitality workers, but all those jobs usually turn out to be fewer in number — and mostly minimum-wage, part-time positions in housekeeping or busing tables. And if the promoters can promise $6 million in local revenues, you can be sure they’re pocketing many millions more.

Nobody invests all that money just to create jobs and generate tax revenue.

Despite their slick advertising, casinos don’t draw the glamorous Monte Carlo set. You won’t find James Bond playing chemin de fer and baccarat outside Gretna. It will be busloads of grannies playing nickel slots, rarely venturing beyond the casino to spend money anywhere else, plus a handful of locals trying their luck.

There’s a scene in “My Little Chickadee,” the W.C. Fields and Mae West western farce, in which Fields is fleecing a frontier rube in a card game.

“Is this a game of chance?” the mark asks Fields.

“Not the way I play it, no, not-a’tall,” Fields replies as he stacks the deck.

That’s the deal casino operators are offering Gretna.

It’s sad that Gadsden has so little now that it aspires to be the next Atmore, Ala.

Before the Supreme Court rules on an appeal — by which time, the 2016 Legislature will have had a chance to clarify whether “race-inos” are legal outside Southeast Florida — city and county officers should get with the Department of Economic Opportunity and look for some real development opportunities.

To read the editorial on the Tallahassee Democrat’s website click here