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Friday, November 17, 2006

Chilhowie Royale

The following article originally appeared in the Roanoke Times on Thursday, October 5, 2006

A gambling fix for a poor economy
Jerry Fuhrman

It's time we had this debate. Gaming is a cash cow. Should it be allowed to flourish in Southwest Virginia?

Now, before you get your undies in a bunch, it would serve you well to remember that one can't drive down a street in any village or town in the area and not be confronted with signs and placards heralding the current status of Virginia's favorite sport. No, not Virginia Tech football; I'm referring to our state-sanctioned lottery system. In fact, I can find out what the lottery jackpot has risen to at any given point in time by driving past the Pepsi plant in Wythe County and looking at the massive billboard nearby.

Gambling, like it or not, is already an integral part of our society, with the Virginia Lottery pulling in nearly half a billion dollars in revenue for the state education fund last year alone.

With that understood, how about we invite Donald Trump or Bally's to build a casino just off I-81 in Smyth County? Say, Chilhowie.

Let's look at the possibilities.

When you think of the No. 1 destination in America for tourists who want to play the slots or a hand of blackjack, what comes to mind? That's right, Las Vegas. Guess what the fastest growing city in America is. Right again. Did you know that Las Vegas played host to 26 million tourists last year who contributed $14 billion to the local economy? And, at the risk of being accused of disparaging Wayne Newton's talents, those millions aren't flocking to Vegas to hear him belt out "Danke Schoen."

By comparison, it makes our best efforts at developing the tourism industry in Southwest Virginia through the construction of miles and miles of bike paths and hiking trails, the results of which have brought us a handful of fast-food establishments and an outfitters shop or two, seem kind of ... what's the word? Puny?

Las Vegas is unique, you say. We could never replicate here what they have accomplished there. If you were to take a look around, you'd find fabulous growth in gaming tourism occurring across this great land, in places like Turtle Lake, Wis.; Christmas, Mich.; Joliet, Ill.; and Mashantucket, Conn.

Dollars generated by tourists visiting casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi now account for a stunning 8 percent of total state tax revenue.

Could Smyth County benefit from a casino or two being built in its midst? Take a look at what has happened to Tunica County, Miss. Famously referred to by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as "America's Ethiopia" because of its crushing poverty, Tunica was once one of the poorest counties in the country. In 1992, shortly after the gaming industry received approval from the legislature to build casinos in the area, construction began in Tunica with $3 billion of construction and related tourism investment.

There are now nine casinos operating up and down the Mississippi River in Tunica County (it was not in the path of Hurricane Katrina so it escaped relatively unscathed), employing 12,000 people (with ancillary employment, the number grows to 19,000). County per-capita income has risen from $9,900 in 1992 to an estimated $20,400 in 2000. Unemployment dropped from 13.6 percent to 5 percent. Its population has risen 13 percent in the decade between 1990 and 2000. The county, 72 percent black, prospers like never in its history.

Smyth County, by the same token, has seen its population, according to the latest census data, actually decline by 1.3 percent in the last five years and its private nonfarm employment drop 9.6 percent. Its median household income is more than $18,000 below the state average and the number of people living in poverty is 5 percent higher.

Chilhowie in particular could sure use an infusion of capital. Having suffered through plant closings and more than 1,430 layoffs (in a town of 1,784 people) in recent years, a casino prospering where once Reebok and J.C. Penney T-shirts were made might be just the thing.

Impossible, you say? It could never happen? Perhaps. But our state government got into the liquor business many years ago for similar reasons. Why not roulette tables?

I even have a slogan for Chilhowie to adopt, if it hasn't already been taken: What's spent in Chilhowie stays in Chilhowie. Let the good times roll.