State Rep. proposes gambling on Jekyll
The Brunswick News

By ERIKA CAPEK
2/17/2011

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, wants to bring legal gambling to Jekyll Island and other popular tourist spots in Georgia.

As the state lottery does now, his objective is to raise money for the HOPE scholarship that pays college tuition for top students.

Stephens said Wednesday he wants to have video lottery terminals, which are like slot machines, on Jekyll Island and at places like Lake Lanier, near Atlanta, and Hutchinson Island at Savannah, to boost revenue.

"The idea is to give (tourists) something else to do with their entertainment dollar," said Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

The HOPE scholarship and grant program, which also funds the state's prekindergarten program, is funded by the Georgia Lottery. But the fund cannot keep up with demand.

Stephens said Wednesday his planned legislation would help create more money to support HOPE, which will have to be cut after years of growth that has outpaced lottery sales.

He proposes that the gambling machines be in centralized locations with limited access and under local control. They would not be in convenience stores, he said. "I don't want to see them all over the place."

Once details are worked out, a bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives, Stephens said. Residents of affected communities would have a voice in the matter, he said.

He can count on it.

Mindy Egan, co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, a group devoted to preserving its perceptions of the state park's natural qualities and characteristics, says gambling on Jekyll Island is inappropriate for a family oriented vacation site.

"It's not a place where this should even be entertained," Egan said. "We're going to speak out very strongly on this."

Any legislation introduced in the General Assembly to allow gambling on Jekyll Island may encounter resistance from members of Glynn County's state delegation.

That includes Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons, whose district includes Jekyll Island.

Atwood said Wednesday he has some concerns about the proposal.

"Jekyll is not Atlantic City," he said, referring to Atlantic City, N.J., which in 1976 turned to casino gambling in an attempt to revitalize the city. "(Jekyll) is a very special place that needs to be protected."

Atwood said he hasn't spoken to Stephens about the proposal and will keep an open mind. Nonetheless, Atwood said he believes gambling on Jekyll Island would change the face of the state park and said details like how to police it are troubling.

"This one's fraught with peril," Atwood said of the proposal.

Erica England, communications specialist for the Jekyll Island Authority, which operates the state-owned island, said the topic has not been brought to the attention of the JIA board, and doesn't expect it will be because gambling is prohibited by state law.

"If that law changes, it would need careful study," she said.

Persons 18 years old and older can gamble legally within sight of Jekyll Island aboard the Emerald Princess, a gambling ship docked in Brunswick that makes nightly trips 3 miles offshore, beyond state-controlled waters.