Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Casino gambling still a poor bet for Atlanta, Georgia

It’s amazing how flexible moral principles can become once Big Money begins to wield its influence. Case in point: The debate over casino gambling in Georgia.

For years, the idea of casino gambling has been a complete non-starter in this state. Georgia leaders seemed to understand that any additional jobs and government revenue promised by the casino industry would not offset its impact on families, businesses and lives, and that the economic benefits of such projects are almost always grossly exaggerated.

However, once MGM Resorts International began talking up a $1 billion casino in downtown Atlanta, and once their lobbyists began visiting the right offices, the tone of the conversation changed. From Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on down, minds previously closed to the idea of casino gambling have suddenly begun to pry open.

But let’s take a look purely at the economics:

-- Most of the jobs generated by casino gambling are low-paying service-industry jobs — waiters, dealers, security personnel, etc.. It’s the type of “growth” that generates more despair than prosperity. Biloxi, Miss., for example, is home to MGM’s giant Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. But according to U.S. Census data, family income and poverty levels in Biloxi are no better than and in some cases worse than in Mississippi as a whole.

-- The casino market is largely saturated, with additional casinos basically cannibalizing customers and revenue from existing facilities. That’s in part why metro Atlanta — still virgin territory for legalized gambling — is so attractive to the industry. But it also means that gambling isn’t the national tourist draw that it might have been 20 years ago.

-- Those drawn to gamble at regional casinos, outside the high-end gaming palaces of Las Vegas, are typically less affluent Americans. James Bond isn’t gambling there, Grandma Betsy is, and she probably arrived by bus.

-- Like Grandma Betsy, those customers are also considerably older and on fixed incomes, and they are shrinking rather than increasing in number. Sitting down and pulling the handle on a slot machine isn’t much of an attraction for later generations raised on highly sophisticated, interactive video games and mobile devices.

-- Instead of being a magnet to development, as other industries can be, the presence of casinos discourages other businesses from locating nearby. That’s in part because modern casinos are designed with their own retail shops, restaurants, bars and other amenities to capture every dollar possible and prevent leakage. In addition, non-gaming companies aren’t going to want to locate their national headquarters or other office space next door to a casino. It is a disincentive to growth.

-- The overall economics of the gaming industry are dependent on larger trends that aren’t promising. “Our revenue and cash flow forecast incorporates our view that consumers, who remain under pressure from weak growth in disposable personal income, will continue to limit their spending to items that are more essential than gaming,” Moody‘s Senior Vice President Keith Foley said last month in a somber assessment of the gaming industry’s future.

In short, it remains a bad bet.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.