Tallahassee Democrat Associate Editor Byron Dobson: Jobs may carry vote on gambling
Where were the opposing voices? That was my first reaction following the Gadsden County Commission’s unanimous vote Tuesday allowing voters to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on bringing slot machines to the county.
And, despite my initial reservations, I now believe that residents will vote soundly in favor of gambling in a referendum during January’s presidential preference primary.
Perhaps the silence was driven by the word on the street that the vote was a “done deal.” Everyone already knows that Creek Entertainment Gretna is about to take off in a few weeks with its offering of barrel racing and the opening of a 22,000-square-foot arena, prepped with a bar, card rooms, meeting rooms and a restaurant.
This is heady development for Gadsden County, one of Florida’s poorest communities and the only county in the state that is majority black. Its struggles with a multitude of quality-of-life issues, such as school performance and graduation rates, teenage pregnancy, access to emergency health care, air pollution and economic development, have been well documented.
Now, I’m thinking that Tuesday’s vote shows how out of touch I am with Gadsden County residents. I’ve been hesitant in wholeheartedly endorsing an effort that banks so heavily on horse betting, games of chance and a full-blown casino. No doubt my concerns have been influenced by report after report that any form of gambling is most detrimental to our hardest-hit communities, where people with the fewest extra dollars to spend are the heaviest players.
For example, Gadsden County ranked fifth in the state in 2010-11 in per capita lottery sales.
I’m a bit lottery player who’s had a bad run for more than a year. And the times that I’ve visited casinos have been enjoyable. The thought of having the type of entertainment promised by Creek Entertainment Gretna — of which the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is majority owner — is appealing.
But who is going to benefit? There are promises of jobs, but what kinds of jobs will they be? Will the management positions be reflective of the county’s demographics? Will Gadsden County residents find themselves banking on an entertainment venture that ends up too costly for everyday working people to enjoy?
Obviously, those concerns weren’t echoed by commissioners at the meeting.
“It’s as if this county is constantly being blessed,” Gadsden County Commission chairwoman Sherrie Taylor said. “I am proud to be a Gadsdonian.”
She’s correct that Gadsden County has been on a roll. Besides the multimillion- dollar pari-mutuel venture opening later this month in Gretna, the city of Quincy last week celebrated the opening of a new downtown park and amphitheater, ushered in with a performance by the legendary soul group The O’Jays. Then there’s National Solar Power’s selection of Gadsden County as its choice for the largest solar farm in the southeastern United States.
It seems clear that Gadsden County residents see the entertainment complex as a step toward expanded economic opportunities.
And approval of the referendum will lead to developments that can change the very landscape of the county.
So far, the numbers are impressive to this initial skeptic.
Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney and minority investor who has worked behind the scenes to bring the complex to Gadsden County, says every effort is being made to make sure that Gadsden residents benefit. He told me this week that, of the first 68 jobs related to Creek Gretna, two-thirds went to Gadsden County residents, and of those, half are filled by African Americans. Training for card dealers is under way, and those jobs will pay nearly $50,000 a year. The investors have been working with Workforce Plus and the city of Gretna in getting the word out about jobs.
More information from the Poarch Creek team indicates:
The pari-mutuel barrel racing and poker room will provide 170 to 200 jobs, with salaries averaging $33,000. Property taxes will generate about $250,000 a year, plus $160,000 toward law enforcement and $500,000 to the state.
If the referendum passes, it is expected to result in an additional 850 direct jobs down the road, along with more than $2 million annually in property taxes. “There hasn’t been a request from the community that hasn’t been acted on, “ Dunbar said. “They (Poarch Creek) have as part of their tribal management policy a whole philanthropy component.”
Jerry Willis is mayor of Wetumpka, Ala., one of three sites where the Poarch Band operates casinos in that state. The operation there is different in that Gadsden’s is the first commercial partnership. Others are built on reservations. That’s one reason why Gadsden will benefit from the revenues.
Willis said the Wetumpka site attracted 1.4 million visitors in the first six months of this year. The city doesn’t benefit in the form of tax revenues, but it does mean that 3 million people are visiting the city who would not normally come through.
“They have helped us in doing different things in the city,” Willis said.
“They are great people, great neighbors.”
Former state Sen. Al Lawson, a native of Gadsden County and a 28-yearveteran of the Florida Legislature, said economics was the driving factor behind the lack of opposition this week. “Throughout the years, the biggest issue (in Gadsden County) is jobs,” he said.
The real battle begins now to get people out to vote in January. In the meantime, Lawson said, he expects some “moral issues” to surface over casino gambling.
“The issue is going to be how the religious community responds to it,” he said.
Maybe Tuesday night was an indication.