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Casinos face long odds



These are things that tend to go in cycles: the real estate market. Winning Hawks seasons. Talk about opening a casino in Underground Atlanta.

The subject of legalized gambling in Georgia has percolated with regularity every time the economy takes a dip or City Hall faces a shortfall or simply because no one's mentioned it in a while.

Every winter, the Atlanta mayor submits a casino proposal on the city's legislative wish list. Nearly every General Assembly, an Atlanta-based lawmaker drops a gambling bill in the hopper. The issue gets some media buzz, perhaps a bigwig or two writes an op-ed, and then – well, usually, nothing comes of it.

So why would this time be different? For one, the casino discussion has reached a new level. Underground Atlanta management recently revealed it had a $450 million offer in hand from a casino developer. Such heavy-hitters as Cousins Properties CEO Tom Bell and Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell and Lanier Parking CEO Michael Robison are publicly advocating for a casino. And well-connected lobbyists are working behind the scenes for gambling.

More importantly, technology has finally caught up with state law, creating a potential loophole where none existed before.

The major stumbling block for gambling has always been a conservative Georgia Legislature. That hasn't changed. But advocates now claim that video lottery terminals, devices that look and play like electronic slot machines but use a lottery-based system for yielding winning numbers, don't need legislative approval. Instead, it's claimed, the state lottery board can decide to allow VLTs – and then we're off to the races, metaphorically.

Legal opinions differ wildly on whether VLTs would, in fact, be allowed in Georgia. The state Constitution explicitly states that "all forms of pari-mutuel betting and casino gambling are hereby prohibited." Of course, it once said the same about lotteries and look how that turned out. But to tackle the matter of casinos head-on would require a constitutional amendment, which is a heavy lift: two-thirds approval by the General Assembly, the governor's sign-off and a statewide referendum. (Alternately, the same process could be followed to allow gambling in Georgia's "special entertainment districts," a designation only Underground enjoys.)

One pro-gambling lobbyist describes VLTs as "just another lottery delivery device" – an electronic version of a scratch-off card. But even assuming that VLTs could pass legal muster, they aren't exactly what many casino advocates had in mind.

"Can't we do better than that?" asks Pablo Henderson, owner of the Mark nightclub in downtown's Fairlie-Poplar District and a longtime supporter of the notion of a casino at Underground. "Why is it that when Georgia does something new, it often sinks to the lowest-common denominator?"

Henderson points out that in his native London, casinos co-exist with boutiques, restaurants and hotels along posh streets. And while few people envision downtown Atlanta as a proper setting for black-tie baccarat tables, the idea of rows of VLTs has struck many observers as being a tad low-rent – much closer to a Reno bus terminal than, say, Casino Royale.

Robb Pitts, however, insists otherwise.

Pitts has been the most passionate, visible and single-minded proponent of casino gambling from the days he served as Atlanta City Council president. Since winning a Fulton County Commission seat, Pitts has, if anything, turned up the volume on his sales pitch. Underground Atlanta, overhauled and equipped with banks of VLTs, would "have the look and feel of a casino," Pitts says. "You could make it seem upscale."

As evidence, Pitts cites the Delaware casino operated by Dover Downs, the gaming firm that's angling to put VLTs into Underground. In addition to the video lottery games, the company's casino offers video poker and electronic versions of blackjack and roulette – not the type of swanky games of chance that typically attract high-rollers. On the casino's website, a page titled "See our winners!" pictures a dozen or so people who have the look of retired factory workers.

While Pitts isn't ready to concede that VLTs are somewhat lame, he admits he'd like the machines to serve as the foot in the door. "It's a step in the right direction," he says. "A half loaf is better than no loaf at all."

Worst of all is having your loaf eaten by someone else. The nearest large casinos, in Cherokee, N.C., and Biloxi, Miss., are making money that could be kept in metro Atlanta. "On any Saturday night, you can see church buses leaving Atlanta headed to Mississippi," says state Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who says he plans this week to introduce legislation to allow cities and counties to hold referendums to decide whether they want gambling.

Though the bill is a long shot, Bruce hopes it will encourage cash-strapped cities to push for legalization.

The lottery board also is looking for new ways to rake in money. Earlier this month, Georgia Lottery CEO Margaret DeFrancisco told board members that the state lottery if the state aims to continue to increase funding for HOPE scholarships, it will have to find a new revenue stream. Adding a new scratch-off game won't cut it any longer.

Pitts, who attended the lottery board meeting, reminded members that their primary duty is to maximize cash for scholarships. "Doing nothing isn't an option," he said.

All the elements might seem to be moving in place to make gambling irresistible – except for one significant obstacle. His name is Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The seven-member lottery board was appointed by Perdue. Board member John Watson says that while he doesn't check with the governor every time he casts a vote, he believes actions of board members should reflect the principles of the governor.

Moreover, says Watson, the debate over whether VLTs could skirt the constitutional ban on gambling is beside the point. A decision to allow gaming machines would represent a "wholesale change in public policy" that should properly be undertaken by elected lawmakers, he says, not a state board.

Even if the Republican-controlled Legislature were somehow compelled to approve a referendum on casino gambling, there's no guarantee that the liberal-leaning capital city would benefit. The Savannah waterfront or state-owned Jekyll Island might well jump ahead of Underground as potential sites for a casino.

The safest bet is that we won't see casinos in Georgia at least until our next governor takes office.

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