I’ll admit to being a simple man. Sometimes things fly right over my head. For instance, I read Dr. Seuss books to my kids and during my own childhood and never realized they were totally racist and hurtful. Who knew? (Maybe Horton.)
It also took me a long time to realize every time Taco Bell comes out with a new item, it’s pretty much the same ingredients reorganized in a different way. Boy did I feel dumb when that one hit me.
So you’ll have to forgive me for not quite being able to wrap my head around what we’re trying to do when it comes to the gambling bill being pushed by Senator Del Marsh in Alabama’s current legislative session. I understand the basics — Marsh wants Alabama to cease being the only state in our region not benefiting from the citizens’ desires to shovel over money on games of chance such as lotteries, tossing dice or betting on college football. That part makes sense.
What I don’t understand is why in doing this, the Legislature wants to create just five places where there can be casino-style gambling, and why most of them will be at dog tracks. I also don’t understand why when all of this is taken to the citizens to vote on a referendum, it has to be tied up together so they all either pass or fail together.
Marsh said the other day he’s amenable to possibly adding two more casinos to his bill, but that would still lock Alabama in at just seven statewide. That may sound like a lot, but Mississippi, by comparison, has 36. Sixteen of those are in just three counties along the coast.
I’m not saying we need a casino in every town, but we are seriously hamstringing ourselves by saying “Yes, we want casino gambling, but we’d like to do it in the most tepid and restrictive way possible.”
If this bill passes, Mobile’s opportunity for a casino would be Mobile Greyhound Park. That’s it. No cool casino on our riverfront. No converting the struggling GulfQuest maritime museum into a financial winner for the city, or turning the GM&O building into a palace that would revitalize a rough area of town and help draw in more tourists. Not even a big, new casino with a concert hall to replace the worn-out Civic Center. (These ideas are free city leaders. If you’d like more, please sign up for a premium account.)
Not to diss Mobile Greyhound Park, but really??? It’s a long way and a lot of money from offering an experience that would be competitive with what you get in Biloxi, unless we’re talking about visiting the really run-down parts of Biloxi.
This bill more or less locks us into a handful of casinos for the foreseeable future, and also would allow Gov. Kay Ivey to pursue a “compact” with the Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) that would practically give them a monopoly on gambling in Alabama for decades. PCI already has three casinos operating in the state as well as ownership of Mobile Greyhound Park, and, under Marsh’s bill, the tribe would get to build a fifth casino location in the northern part of the state.
It doesn’t appear there’s any prohibition from PCI purchasing Victoryland, GreenTrack and the Birmingham Racecourse either. So, theoretically, they could own all five locations along with the three they already have.
That’s nothing against PCI. They have a very nice facility in Atmore, and Owa looks like the next Disney World in waiting, or at least Six Flags. I’m sure they would have quality facilities, although they might be more concerned about balancing them against one another so — for example — Mobile Greyhound Park wouldn’t draw business away from Wind Creek in Atmore. I’m sure that would be a consideration for any company that had businesses scattered across one state. Such concerns wouldn’t be the same for outside companies coming in. They would want to capture all the business they could get and might up the ante, so to speak, in terms of what we wind up with.
I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when casino gambling was approved there, and I remember watching the evolution. Those first casinos were rickety paddle wheelers or on sad-looking old cruise ships. That elevated rather quickly to fixed locations and hotels. When Katrina wiped out much of what had been done, all bets were off and the casinos have gotten bigger and better. In October, Universal Music announced plans to build a $1.2 billion hotel/entertainment complex where the old Broadwater Hotel stands.
In roughly 30 years Biloxi has been transformed from a roughneck fishing town to a gaming Mecca. With our market locked up under one company and most of our casinos scattered across more lightly populated areas, how would Alabama hope to see that kind of development? What’s Mobile’s opportunity to get a $1.2 billion entertainment complex built once you can play blackjack at the dog park?
While there’s no doubt adding a lottery, sports betting and extending Class III casino-style games into the dog tracks, three existing PCI casinos and the casino-to-be-named-later will generate lots of money Alabama doesn’t currently have, that’s not a reason to make a bad deal. Gov. Ivey’s gaming study didn’t tell us anything surprising — yes, gambling will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue. There’s a reason Alabama is one of only five states that don’t have gaming or lotteries. They make money for the state.
The reason for doing things the way Marsh’s bill would mandate is raw politics. We’re told this is the only way we’ll get anything. That’s probably why it’s all tied up in one referendum. Most people want a lottery and I’d assume far more are ambivalent about casinos, how many there are or who runs them.
Still, no one has really explained why this is better than trying to get gaming passed and then letting the state gaming commission take applications for casinos around the state. Certainly, some might see opportunity in places like downtown Mobile or in Gulf Shores that would be locked out if Marsh’s bill becomes law.
Alabama has waited a long time to get into the gambling business, so we’re already playing catch up. We need to do this in a way that gives us a chance to compete.
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