When I was driving across the west this summer, we passed by a number of rural casinos. The majority were sad looking places with large, half-empty parking lots. They were built full of expectation, with grand porticoes and high rise hotels. Maybe they’re bringing in the bucks, but the communities immediately surrounding them certainly didn’t look prosperous.
Now, Republicans in the state legislature have suddenly embraced gambling as a way to prosperity for some of North Carolina’s poorest communities. After years of opposing any sort of “gaming,” as the industry calls it, the GOP has seen the light. They’ve proposed four casinos across the state, locating them in counties that have not shared in the state’s broader prosperity.
Personally, I’m not opposed to gambling or casinos. I’ve got too much of a libertarian streak for that. I think we should be regulating and taxing most sin. We’re certainly not going to stop it, so we should at least share in the profits from it.
I don’t like the process, though. It seems they already know where the casinos are going with little respect for the free-market that Republicans once revered. It’s clearly a case of picking winners and losers, something the GOP constantly complains about. I suspect we’ll find out that owners of the land being identified has close ties to GOP leaders. It doesn’t smell very good.
That said, what the Republicans are proposing seems more wishful thinking than long-term planning. According to an article by WRAL, the legislature is looking at casinos in Anson, Nash, and Rockingham counties and another run by the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County along 1-95. The goal is to provide an economic boost to these counties, whether they want a casino or not.
The debate brings back memories of the lottery fight just a little over a decade ago. Virginia and South Carolina both established lotteries and North Carolina hemorrhaged money to other state coffers. Today, the establishment of casinos along the Virginia border gives legislators an incentive to try to keep gambling money in state.
In the years leading up to the lottery, a host of companies that administered lotteries spent millions in campaign contributions to sway legislators to support legislation to create a lottery. Republicans unanimously opposed the lottery, mostly on moral grounds. Since Trump, though, they’ve given up on morality. Today, casino companies are flooding the zone with campaign contributions and Republicans are the big beneficiaries.
Republicans cite the success of the Harrah’s casinos on the Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina as proof that gambling can be a powerful economic development tool. But there’s a difference. The casino in Cherokee is just one of the draws. Western North Carolina has always been a tourist destination. The casino is just minutes from Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s about an hour from Asheville and an hour from Gatlinburg. There’s hunting, fishing, and whitewater rafting within a few miles. It’s set in the middle of the some of the most stunning scenery in the southeastern United States and easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course people want to go there. The casino is just one of the attractions, not the central draw.
Other successful casinos are just outside Grand Tetons National Park in Jackson Hole or along the banks of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Not many people are going just to gamble. Some successful casinos are in the northeast with easy access to populations of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
I’m skeptical that a casino alone is going to attract much interest. If they are going to work, they need to have additional draws. For instance, Wisconsin Dells, along the Wisconsin River, combines natural wonder of a glacier-carved landscape with the dozens of man-made water parks. It’s a major upper Midwestern tourist trap and the Ho-chunk Casino just happens to be nearby, attracting business from people who are coming there anyway. There’s something for everyone and the casino is just one source of entertainment.
I would argue that if you’re going to put casinos in the state, link them to areas that already have attractions and think more creatively. Pinehurst and Southern Pines already have golfing and horses. If you’re going to put in a casino that attracts tourists put it within easy access to those amenities. You can still put it in Anson County. Just put it near the Pee Dee River, 45 minutes from Pinehurst, instead of the Union County line. And build a racetrack for horses. They’re coming to golf in the day. Give them a casino or racetrack at night. It will also help struggling Richmond County instead of booming Union.
I don’t really believe gambling is a panacea for the economic woes of rural North Carolina, but it might be a piece of the equation if it’s done right. They need to be part of a larger entertainment endeavor, not a draw in themselves. Paring them with existing attractions makes more sense than taking an if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality. I would prefer to have areas that look more like Wisconsin Dells than the sad casinos I saw in Wyoming. I would also prefer a process that’s more transparent than the one taking place now. I want the wealth spread wide, not concentrated in the hands of a few friends of legislators.