From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Mennonites examine casino economies

From George Conklin <>
Date 24 May 1996 19:21:30

May 24, 1996
Mennonite Board of Missions
Contact: Tom Price, director of information
Phone: (219) 294-7523

Casinos reap economic benefits, social ills

 GULFPORT, Miss. (MBM) -- Most of what the gaming industry promised the   
Mississippi Gulf Coast, it has delivered: more jobs, economic   
development, increased tax revenues.
 But it's the things the gaming community didn't mention that troubled   
community leaders Jan. 26-27 at a "Casino Consultation" here.
 "This was kind of a peaceful community," said Gulfport Police Chief   
George Payne Jr. "For five years in my city, we had reduced the crime by   
double-digits every year."
 Now, Payne sees crime increasing almost across the board: arson,   
assaults, suicides and attempted suicides as well as embezzlements to pay   
off gambling debts.
 In one year, arrests for driving while intoxicated increased 131   
percent, while drug-related arrests jumped 49 percent. Domestic disputes   
nearly tripled.
 "Why do you think domestic disputes are up?" Payne said. "(Casinos)   
advertise bring your payroll check here on a Friday night. We'll cash it   
for you and give you an opportunity to double your money. ... One out of   
500 might win that pool. What happens to the rest of them? They go home   
without a paycheck in a lot of trouble."
 Bankruptcies increased 300 percent, while the number of pawn shops grew   
sixfold to 36. "We did not have a place to hock your car. You can hock   
your car at 2 o'clock in the morning now," he said. "I used to think a   
wedding ring was something important. You can go to these hock shops and   
you can find any kind or color you want."
 A strip club recently opened within Gulfport. Two days before the casino   
consultation, police shut down "a massage parlor where they did more than   
 "We had three rapes in one weekend that were directly related to the   
casino," he added.
 Mississippi law officials also encountered a new phenomenon: false crime   
reports. "It is not against the law in Mississippi to make a false   
report. We're going to change that law," said Payne, pointing to a flurry   
of robberies purportedly occurring along the casino strip.
 But the casinos have done more than increase crime statistics.
 "You can't drive anywhere in my city in ten minutes anymore," Payne   
said. "There is no place to park. There are people walking up and down   
the street 24 hours a day."
 Retired residents on fixed incomes saw rents nearly double. A local soup   
kitchen's meals increased from 70 to 300 per day. The Salvation Army said   
casinos send their "guests" to them when they are intoxicated or have   
spent all their money. The cash assistance funds from downtown churches   
are taxed beyond church leaders' wildest expectations.
 Gamblers Anonymous didn't exist along the Gulf Coast; now there are   
eight chapters. "For the first year, we never talked face-to-face with a   
person who had a problem with gambling," said John Landrum, a chaplain to   
Mississippi Beach and its 12 casinos. "All of a sudden in January 1994,   
we began to have people come to us."
 Despite the negative statistics, Payne is quick to mention the positive   
contributions casinos have made:
 * The number of police officers doubled while the police budget grew   
from $4.2 million to $11 million.
 * Harrison County now has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the   
 * New roads and other infrastructure improvements continue to occur.
 "Four years ago, the city of Biloxi was fixing to file bankruptcy. Now,   
they have got $12 million to $14 million they don't know how to spend,"   
Payne said, noting Gulfport's growth has occurred at a more measured   
pace. "We're starting to get so much other industry. If gaming leaves us,   
it is going to hurt us but not kill us. If gaming walks out of Biloxi, it   
is going to go bankrupt."
 But this influx of revenue carries some strings.
 "Our economics, our education, is dependent upon the weakness of our   
community rather than the strengths of our community," said David Kniss,   
pastor of Gulfhaven Mennonite Church. "How do we as pastors and churches   
deal with these issues?"
 Although new tourism dollars now flow into the region, about half of   
casino patrons come from the local community, according to Landrum. "A   
lot of the local economy goes through the casino one way or another," he   
 But some businesses that initially supported the gaming industry now are   
having second thoughts.
 "When they first sold gaming to us, it was going to be a small-package   
deal. They wouldn't compete against local restaurants and bars," Payne   
 Once opened, casinos offered buffets with $5 steaks and plan even more   
virtually unbeatable attractions.
 "You are going to come into their resort complex and you ain't going to   
leave it," Payne added. "What's that going to do to all the local   
mom-and-pop stores?"
 "Many communities have been sold a bill of goods without realizing fully   
what the impact on the community will be," said Mark Thiessen Nation, a   
doctoral student in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.   
"Once they come into the community, some of the chief leaders in gambling   
become the chief leaders in the community. Then, they start shaping what   
the community is."
 In Gulfport, the manager of the Isle of Capri casino was elected   
president of the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce. In addition to   
funding improvements in education, the casinos gave a $25,000 grant to   
the NAACP.
 "If you need money, they give it to you -- if you accept it," Payne   
said. "They infiltrate your community. There are certain groups in this   
community that can't live without them."
 "You don't want people leading your community who are leading businesses   
that depend upon greed and lack of self-control for the continuance of   
their business," Nation added. "Now that they are here, it is going to be   
difficult -- if not impossible -- to get them out again."
 For communities wrestling with the potential for gambling or an   
entrenched gaming community, Nation suggested three responses, quoting   
from "The Luck Game." The book's author, Robert Goodman, calls for a:
 * National moratorium on the expansion of gambling ventures.
 * Limit on the ways in which states and private enterprises can promote   
and encourage gambling.
 * Review by national and state governments of the impact of gambling.
 But Payne, a Presbyterian whose 30-member church choir includes six   
casino employees, fears that gaming is in Gulfport to stay.
 "These are real smart people. They have come in degrees. They bought the   
best ad firms you can buy to sell it, and they sold it. Fifty-five   
percent of the people bought it," Payne said. "If you keep getting beat   
in the head with it, you begin to accept it."

                                * * *

Tom Price

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