Tallahassee Democrat’s Byron Dobson: Hardest-Hit Communities are Usually Heaviest Slot Players; Gadsden Commissioners Overlooked Concerns of Everyday People in Vote on Gretna Casino Slot Referendum; Moral Issues Expected To Surface

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.

 

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About unitedfloridahorsemen

The United Florida Horsemen, comprises the organizations listed below, and represents the interests of Florida's horsemen and horse racing industry to Regulators, the Florida Legislature, Public Policy Makers and the community at large. • National and Florida Barrel Horse Association (24,000 members) • American Quarter Horse Association (350,000 national members; 7,163 Florida members) • Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (439 members) • U.S. Trotting Association (25,000 members) • Florida Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association (630 members) • Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (1,300 members) • National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (35,000 members) • Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (5,000 members)
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