Some city leaders look to cash in on gambling

By Walter C. Jones | Morris News Service

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Casino gambling in Georgia could be the best way to preserve Atlanta's position as a top convention city, according to a study commissioned for a group of civic leaders.

The results of the study haven't been released, and the group commissioning it hasn't been made public, but the author of the study, R. Mark Woodworth of PKF Consulting of Atlanta, says his phone has been ringing off the hook since it was leaked in February.

Although gambling didn't come up in the General Assembly's session that concluded last week, it has been discussed in civic meetings around Atlanta.

Meanwhile, a lobbyist for a separate group based in Augusta has said he will bring up legalized horse gambling during a coming special session.

"I'll be approaching legislators then," said Larry Taylor, who represents the Georgia Horseracing Committee.

Both groups note that a growing number of states are legalizing gaming, including some surrounding Georgia.

"It's not going to go away. It's too big," said Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution who made a presentation in Atlanta to business leaders. "The question for Georgia is, do you want to tax it and benefit from it or watch it go to other states?"

Mr. Leinberger, who ran a real-estate consulting business in Atlanta for 25 years, said he's not a fan of gambling.

However, he told business leaders last week that Atlanta could see its downtown blossom as did Detroit, a city of similar size.

Detroit draws 15 million visitors, about as much as Disneyland, he said.

"It makes a whole lot of sense to me that Atlanta, with its superior airline connections, would be another hub for gambling if it wanted to," he said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said last week the state-run lottery is addressing Georgians' appetite for gambling.

"We believe in Georgia there is a finite level of gaming elasticity here and that we are consuming and harvesting a great deal of that through our lottery that goes directly to the HOPE Scholarship and the pre-K," he said. "I'm not in favor of doing anything that would disrupt that."

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, is equally skeptical about gambling.

"I am not religiously or morally opposed to gambling," Mr. Richardson said. "... I just don't think that bringing in casino gambling is all this economic boom. I think it's potentially the opposite."

He worries about crime and increased need for expensive social services.

The comments from Mr. Perdue and Mr. Richardson could provide hope for gambling advocates. A philosophical objection would be tougher to overcome, but gaming supporters have facts to bring to the discussion.

For instance, instead of the Georgia Lottery meeting all the demand, PKF Consulting argues it shows how much demand there is.

"That just suggested to us that there are residents here in the state who like to gamble," said Mr. Woodworth, PKF's executive vice president.


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