Gretna hopes gaming will help it shed the "ugly duckling" image
By James Call
Tallahassee, FL – A tiny Northwest Florida community is entering the state's debate on gambling with a big bet. James Call reports, Gretna, about 25 miles west of Tallahassee, is working with the Creek Indians to build a resort featuring hotels, a quarter-horse race track and a casino with 2,000 slot machines -- more one-armed bandits than the population of the entire town.
At Interstate 10's exit 174 a crew is installing a massive concrete container that will be part of the plumbing infrastructure for a resort casino featuring hotels and an equestrian center. A sign indicates the exit is within Gretna's city limits but you can count on a single hand the number of homes you pass along State Route 12 driving the five miles from Highway 90 to the exit. Clarence M. Jackson the third is the mayor of Gretna.
"Granted we don't have water, we don't have a lake as a tourist attraction we don't have beaches, we don't have snow we don't have mountains we have, we have, we have land."
Gretna, population 1600, wants to use the land to grow jobs. The poorest community in one of Florida's more impoverished counties is spending $3.5 million dollars expanding roads and sewer systems to accommodate a Creek Indian entertainment complex. It will feature a 1400 seat arena, a quarter-horse race track, hotels, restaurants and, if voters approve in January, 2,000 slot machines.
Jackson worked to place the referendum on the presidential primary ballot to beat a potential change in state law ending a local option. The legislature will debate whether to permit destination resorts featuring Las Vegas-style casinos when it meets in January. The proposal would confine such developments to South Florida. Fort Lauderdale Senator Ellen Bogdanoff is sponsoring the bill. She says she wants to regulate and curtail the growth of the gambling industry.
"I don't understand. I read the comments in the paper and it kind of blows my mind that people say we don't want an expansion of gaming and yet they do absolutely nothing to stop it. This bill has that opportunity to do that."
A coalition of faith-based groups organized to fight Bogdanoff's proposal specifically, and developments like Gretna in general. Bill Bunkley of the Florida Baptist Convention says the social costs of legal gambling exceed the tax money it generates. Bunkley says it is almost double, but he invites others like Bogdanoff and Jackson to do their own study.
"The study or commission should be composed of both private and public participation not connected to the gambling industry. We need to know the underlying truth of all the unintended consequences have learned about these activities. It is very hard to justify approving any of these grand schemes without knowing all the true costs."
Jackson has heard the complaints that gambling is not good economic development. Governor Rick Scott, for one, says it is not a good idea to tie state revenue to gambling. And he's heard the criticism that gaming is immoral and costs more than it produces. But Jackson counters his city needs jobs. He says the Creek horse racing casino complex will be a game changer for a county where 20 percent of the population and almost 30 percent of the children live in poverty.
"My focus is on what is going to be best for my citizens, what is going to be best for my community and all those folks who have a problem with what we are doing here, they probably should have come along a little bit earlier to try to help us out with issues we face. Economically this is going to be huge for us. 180 people will go to work on December 17th. If this amendment passes in January this new amendment to bring in slots it is going to bring even more jobs to this area and it's going to bring much needed revenue."
The Creeks have agreed to reimburse the city 160-thousand dollar a year for law enforcement. The complex is expected to generate about a quarter million dollars a year in property tax revenue. All of these are huge numbers for a city with 1600 residents and few current jobs.
"I have been a resident of Gretna for 34-years. And for 34 years we have been the absolute laughing stock of this region, we have been the laughing stock of this area. The ugly duckling and we have continued to hear snide remarks as If, you know, there will be more slot machines than people here. But let me tell you something about the people of Gretna. Soon and very soon we won't be the laughing stock anymore. As a matter of fact I think people are starting to realize we are no longer the ugly duckling. We're going to be the pretty girl everyone wants to bring to the ball real, real soon."
The first phase of the project is scheduled to open in mid-December with the start of horse barrel racing, a popular rodeo sport. If Gadsden County voters approve in January then a casino with slots machines will open, although gambling opponents are talking about challenging the court ruling allowing counties to hold such votes. Never-the-less, Jackson is correct people are noticing Gretna. He says investors are lining up capital for a new hotel, with construction expected to start within a year.