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Georgia Casino Backers, Landowners Bust In State Legislature's Crossover Day

Proponents of legalized casino gambling in Georgia have crapped out for the year.

People playing the popular casino game blackjack

A push by state Rep. Ron Stephens to put a referendum before Georgia voters to legalize casino gambling in a handful of mega-sites in the state died Thursday. It was the last day proposed bills could be approved by the House of Representatives before being pushed into the state Senate for a vote, a day known as “Crossover Day.”

That means Stephens and his supporters will be rolling the dice again next year on the effort.

“We'll try again. There's still a lot of controversial [bills in the state legislature]. It was one of those things that came down to maybe it wasn't just the right time. But the bottom line is we can't walk away from it,” Stephens said.

Stephens, a Republican whose South Georgia district covers portions of Savannah, has been one of the primary architects in the push to legalize casino gaming in Georgia in recent years. He is also the father of Georgia's popular film tax credit that has pushed the state to become one of Hollywood's most prolific filming locations.

Since floating the idea in 2018 for a bill that would legalize casino gambling at a number of potential Georgia mega-sites — including one in at College Park in Metro Atlanta — Stephens and his colleagues switched strategy earlier this year and instead pushed for a statewide referendum, putting the burden of legalizing casino gaming with Georgia voters. Gov. Brian Kemp — a staunch opponent to legalized gambling — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that he would not veto such a measure, allowing for a vote in 2020.

Stephens said next year’s strategy will follow a similar route — push for a referendum in 2020 to legalize gaming, and if passed, create a gaming commission that would control the licensing of what he termed “destination resorts” to defined sites throughout the state.

The move to cast this to the fate of Georgia voters has real possibility for casino backers. For years, the resistance to gaming in Georgia has waned. An AJC poll conducted in 2017 found that over half of Georgians supported legalizing casino gambling. A poll by Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies conducted in early February found that 85% of Georgians on both sides of the political spectrum supported the idea that legalizing casino gaming should be put to a vote.

“The struggles in a given year are not surprising,” University of Georgia Professor of Political Science Charles Bullock said. “This is still in some ways a conservative state, a religious state.”

City Commercial Real Estate founder Rick Lackey

That said, the lottery's passage in 1992, which created the HOPE program funding various education initiatives, including covering some or even all tuition expenses for state colleges and universities for in-state students, has become sacrosanct.

And HOPE cuts to the heart of why Stephens says he is pushing for casino gaming's legalization. A recent study found that the program, which has provided more than $9B in education funding in its life span thanks to the lottery, could run out of money by 2028. Advocates for casino gambling say proceeds from those operations may be the only way to save the program.

“They seem to believe if you can get the licensing and get it here, it will pay off handsomely,” Bullock said.

For a cadre of big land owners in the state who have been pushing their sites to casino operators, that big payday will have to wait. But the interest among casino operators remains, despite the resolution's defeat this year, City Commercial Real Estate founder Rick Lackey said.

Land owned by the Whitworth family in North Georgia — at the line with South Carolina — being marketed toward casino operators

Lackey was tapped last year by various property owners to market their sites to casino operators in anticipation of the legislative push. Those initial sites include:

  • College Park's 300-acre parcel known as Airport City, adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
  • Nearly 500 acres off Interstate 85 along Lake Hartwell in North Georgia.
  • 320 acres 10 miles from Downtown Savannah.
  • Nearly 300 acres across from the Great Wolf Lodge Resort indoor water park in LaGrange, Georgia, owned in a joint venture between the Selig family and Hodges Ward Elliott CEO William Hodges.

Lackey has since captured other listing agreements, including for 104 acres off Interstate 20 in Bremen near the Alabama border, and large tracts off Interstate 95 at the Georgia-Florida state line.

“We have numerous casino operators looking at sites around the state right now and some that have entered negotiations to [option] the sites,” Lackey said. “They all know the current political circumstances.”

At least one major casino operator has expressed interest to Bisnow.

“If the opportunity presents itself, we would certainly be interested in pursuing potential gaming sites in the state of Georgia,” Landry's Vice President of Gaming Operations Gerry Del Prete wrote in an email. He did not specify which sites.

Landry's operates the Golden Nugget casino chain, whose locations include casino and hotel operations in Las Vegas, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Atlantic City.

“This is 2019, and the vote will be 2020. I don't think it matters [that it failed this year],” Lackey said. “It should be much easier the next time around. I don't want to come off like a political expert because I'm not, but it's like Sunday liquor sales. It's going to happen.”