Editorial: Let Locals decide casino proposal
The Savannah Morning News
November 9, 2014

A SUDDEN proposal to allow gambling casinos on Hutchinson Island deserves a thorough public debate before any decisions are made, perhaps as early as next year.

Last Wednesday, this bombshell seemed to drop out of nowhere — at Savannah City Council’s legislative luncheon.

Normally, this is a routine gathering, held every year at this time, during which the city’s elected officials meet with members of Chatham County’s legislative delegation to discuss local priorities in the next session of the Georgia Legislature.

Except that wasn’t the case this year.

City Alderman Tom Bordeaux — a former state lawmaker — asked legislators who were present about rumors of a plan to legalize gambling on the island.

As it turns out, it’s more than a rumor.

State Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah, said he expects legislation to be introduced in 2015 by state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, to legalize gambling on Huchinson. It would be pitched as a way to generate jobs and revenue, especially for Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program.

Ron Stephens wasn’t at the luncheon. However, he told a reporter later that Mickey Stephens’ assessment may be wrong — that new legislation didn’t have to be introduced to clear the way for a casino. That’s because the Georgia Constitution already allows gambling through the Georgia Lottery.

Instead, Ron Stephens said, all that would have to happen is for the Georgia Lottery board to act. This board is a seven-member panel whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Its chief job is to oversee the Georgia Lottery.

The way Ron Stephens sees it, this panel has the authority to extend lottery options beyond scratch-off cards and numbers games to include video poker and other gaming devices. He also believes that the board would restrict the casinos to Hutchinson and other potential tourism destinations in Georgia.
In the past, discussions about possible casino venues have included Jekyll Island and Underground Atlanta.
But whether this comes to pass in Savannah is uncertain. The only thing that’s clear at this point is that there’s no consensus.

“I think it would be a horrible mistake,” Mr. Bordeaux said.

A private group that has been working for several years on a high-end, mixed use development on Hutchinson east of the Westin resort also takes a dim view.

“It’s inconsistent with the vision of what we want to do on the island,” said John Cay, who’s overseeing a joint venture that includes CSX Realty Development and Batson Cook.

But Ron Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, sees it differently. “I am absolutely convinced it would be an explosion of growth,” he said.

Mickey Stephens believes local residents should have the final say on a casino in a referendum. So does Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson.

Ron Stephens said he would consider legislation for a referendum, but preferred not to wait until late next year for the casino to become a reality (the city’s next general election is scheduled for next fall).
Now that the casino proposal is public and may be headed to a vote at some point, it’s time for the community to start debating the issue. What are the pros and cons? Do the positives outnumber the negatives? Is it a sure bet or sure bust?

Unfortunately, these questions are tough to answer right now; little public information is available. That must change, too. The sooner, the better.

One thing that shouldn’t happen is that an appointed board in far-off Atlanta makes the final call about Hutchinson, without local input. Let Savannah debate the question. Let Savannah have a hand in deciding it.