Editor's Note: Will Savannah double down on a casino?

NEARLY every pessimistic prediction about Savannah over the past few years has come true.

Some of us warned that the National Park Service might downgrade the status of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District, mostly due to hotel development.

That indeed has come to pass.

Some of us warned that the costs of the new Arena would balloon out of control, probably regardless of who was in charge.

That indeed has come to pass. (Frankly, even earlier than I thought it would.)

Some us warned the City had fallen behind in regulating Airbnbs, and that downtown’s resident population would be hollowed out by vacation rentals.

That indeed has come to pass.

We could go on and on.

So the takeaway is that it’s probably not smart to dismiss warnings, even if the thing you’re being warned about seems a long way away.

Like objects in your rear view mirror, often they are closer than they appear.

Your Georgia state legislature begins its annual 40-day session this week. Near the top of the agenda are various proposals to expand legalized gambling in the state, specifically casinos and horse racing.

Currently there is no legal casino gambling within the state of Georgia. There is only one legal casino operation, in Brunswick, which is headquartered on a boat that must first enter international waters.

For our purposes here, the warning is that if approved, legalized casino gambling could be set for Hutchinson Island, just across the Savannah River.

If this sounds outlandish, keep in mind that the Savannah Convention Center on Hutchinson Island — formerly the International Trade and Convention Center — is set for an expansion to nearly double its size, with increased hotel capacity to boot.

In other words, the infrastructure for a future casino/gaming zone is on its way.

Gov. Brian Kemp has signaled that more budget cuts are needed. Therefore some of the more dependable opponents of gambling expansion have already signaled they are open to casinos, to relieve funding pressure on the very politically popular HOPE Scholarship.

One of the few polls on the question, conducted by SurveyUSA just a few months ago, showed a majority of Georgians supporting at least the concept of casino gambling in the state.

And a main sponsor of the casino bill is..... none other than our own State Rep. Ron Stephens.

So don’t make the strategic blunder of discounting the possibility of a casino in Savannah as unrealistic.

As for the risks of casino development, they are at least on par with its benefits, and probably outweigh them by a lot.

Columnist Jeff Rayno did a fine job of elaborating on these risks in a recent column for us. (See his new column this issue, on gerrymandering and the census.)

Long story short, gambling addiction skyrockets everywhere there is legalized casino gambling, with the accompanying human and financial cost.

Can an area like Savannah, already dealing with issues like poverty, homelessness, poor educational system, and lack of affordable housing, withstand the blows to our socioeconomic health that a major casino would deliver?

And then there’s the civic identity angle: There is no way that a modern casino can be shoehorned to fit the character of a city whose main calling cards to the world are its charm, history, small scale, and older architecture.

But Jim, a casino will help tourism, you say.

Will it though?

Most studies show that casinos just about everywhere other than Las Vegas primarily cater to home-grown gamblers. This has the double whammy of not being the tourist magnet that was hoped, but also amplifies the negative effect of gambling addiction by localizing it.

Certainly there are some cities which will argue they have seen an important economic benefit to casinos. The people of Michigan voted to allow casinos in Detroit in 1996, and there are currently three there.

But when that happened, Detroit was in the middle of a disastrous long-term economic depression with accompanying population loss. Savannah is, for the time being, extremely robust in terms of its tourism/hospitality industry, and new home subdivisions and apartment complexes are sprouting up like mushrooms all over Chatham County.

As in Michigan, if casino gambling comes to Georgia, it will almost certainly have to be approved by the voters through at least one referendum — perhaps multiple referenda for each individual form of gambling.

Lest you think there’s no chance such a referendum could pass, consider that there will inevitably be an enormous amount of money put into political advertising for it, and into pressuring local officials to support it.

Watch your local officials on this! And don’t be afraid to hold them accountable.

The person rumored to be behind the push for casinos in Georgia is billionaire Tilman Fertitta, owner of Golden Nugget casinos and owner of the NBA Houston Rockets. He will have vast resources at his disposal to lobby public opinion.

Lawmakers are likely to cooperate by wording the referendum very carefully to guarantee a Yes vote — for example, using the innocuous phrase “Destination Resort” rather than the scary C-word, casino.

There’s another C-word that’s even more scary: Complacency.

Regardless of which side you’re betting on in this debate, stay on top of the issue and be aware of what’s really going on, and what really could happen if we let it.


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