by | Aug 14, 2023 | Editor's Blog | 9 comments

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. 


  1. cocodog

    Unless Mom has a gambling disorder, there is little possibility she will lose her pension check to a slot machine. Gambling disorders are in the same category as alcohol/drug abuse. Society has long since overcome their fear of demon rum, by allowing the regulated commercial sales of alcohol. These temperance folks are not concerned with temperance, just total and complete elimination of the consumption of alcohol. For the same reason, there is no happy medium with these ante gambling folks. That one mentally disturbed individual who lacks control of their wagering urge will prevent North Carolina from entering the 21st century. However, I have got to agree with Mills. Building a high-end gambling operation in an area suffering from unemployment and crime issues is not the way to go about it. No indeed, in fact it may be asking for problems. The State of Louisiana has benefited from gambling for years. Today, forty-eight states have some form of gambling, with only Hawaii and Utah holding out, according to the American Gaming Association, which also says 50% of Americans hold a favorable view of gaming now, up from 31% in 2009. It would not be a bad idea for a few of our resident politicians to take a trip down to the big easy to study how those folks did it

  2. Lee Neulicht

    Been wondering for a while when the pimps in our legislature realize which vice is where the real money lays.

  3. Andy Stevens

    I spent some time in Cherokee recently. I did not visit the Casino other than to drive by it a few times. I also didn’t stay at the Casino’s hotel. The Casino billboard was advertising help wanted: All non-tipped positions paying $15.00 Friday night, as I was smoking a cigar outdoors at the reasonably priced hotel I was staying at I was approached by several couples asking if the place was a decent one to stay at. They were being economically forced out of their casino hotel rooms due to a weekend price increase requiring $500 a night for their rooms. There’s not much transfer of wealth going to the locals, that’s for sure.

  4. Ted Fillette

    What are the other tourist attractions In Robeson County? I have traveled through there for 45 years and not seen them. Perhaps the proximity to I-95 is a sufficient reason to expect traveling gamblers to stop there. It may be an adequate basis to site a casino for an extremely poor county that has not been able to attract other employers.

  5. cocodog

    Could not agree with you more with respect to transparency. Given the transactional nature of the modern Republican party, the opportunities are abundant for politicians to get a little taste, as the old Mafia Dons would say.
    Gambling revenue built the state of Nevada, supports an excellent free or reduced cost college system, public health systems and little to no state and local taxes. Moreover, according to the FBI Crime Reports, Nevada is among the lowest in violent crimes. There is reason for this, crime is bad for business. Both casinos and local law enforcement resources work towards making it safe for folks to visit and spend money in Vegas and Reno.
    I would like to see the building of racetracks and even off-track betting.
    There is reason to believe that licensing model created by the Cherokee Indian tribe would not be the best approach. The dangers of government partnering with private enterprise have historically been problematic. NC has created the ABC Commission to regulate the sale and distribution of demon rum, there is no reason a similar commission could not be created to run the gambling in this state. Such may require re-engineering and tweaking to eliminate unnecessary positions and improve efficiency, but it is possible. The benefits of state operated gambling are numerous and extensive.

    • Henry Jarrett

      So you are saying casinos are not a sure bet ?

  6. TC

    It seems to me that, if the legislature is naive enough to think that casinos are the do all/end all to rural poverty, they’d want to put them any place other than in the rural community! ‘We’re here to funnel money back into your poor rural community.’ But first, we’re going to prey on your poorest people and revert back into the community. Would we lie? We’re from Raleigh and we’re here to help. Okay, enough cliches.

    Look at the demographic. Who is going to frequent those places the most in those locales? Locals. Who can’t afford it? The locals. Yeah, their money, their choice. Whose going to feed their kids and put gas in the car when Mommy drops her entire check in a slot machine? How’s the retiree going to buy their medication when their whole check goes across the poker table? Help? I just don’t see it.

    I know, big stick in the mud. But it’s like I hear people talk now. They all think that the lottery is supposed to fund education. That money is supposed to supplant any legislative appropriation. They think even when I remind them it was supposed to supplement legislative educational appropriation. So when the casinos open and more tax dollars have to be funneled into those counties, then what? It’ll be someone else’s problem by then.

  7. George Cianciolo

    I agree with most of what you’ve said. But how do you explain the successful Indian casino in the middle of Connecticut.? Although many parts of Connecticut are beautiful I’m not sure that the landscape of that area was part of the casino’s draw.

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