A bill to allow casinos in Georgia is dead for this year, but its sponsor, state Sen. Brandon Beach, says he'll bring it back next year.
In the meantime, Beach says he wants to address the concerns of critics. Some doubt casinos would benefit the economy and fill state coffers as promised. Others worry about gambling addictions.
A coalition of Atlanta's largest performance venues also has a problem with casinos. The Fox Theatre, the Woodruff Arts Center, the Cobb Energy Centre and others formed a group called the Georgia Arts and Venues Coalition. It doesn’t want to fight casinos – just stop them from having performance spaces.
Fox Theatre President and CEO Allan Vella started the group. He says casino performances would unfairly compete with those at existing venues. "Casinos only use entertainment to drive traffic to the gaming floor,” he says. “What that allows them to do is pay well above market rate for an artist or act."
For example, he says, why would an artist perform at the Fox for $75,000 when a casino down the road can offer $250,000?
To make its point to lawmakers, Vella's group commissioned a survey of venues in seven cities. It shows just one casino with a big enough entertainment facility could more than double the market rate for booking artists.
Vella says, with a casino in Atlanta, venues like his would struggle financially. Vella says the Fox would have to cut programs, including some that involve education.
But there's more to entertainment these days, at least according to the casino industry. Geoff Freeman is president of the American Gaming Association. He says for people who like to see shows, casinos could provide something existing Georgia venues can't: "What customers are looking for is an integrated resort experience that includes dining, includes lodging, includes performances, and the industry has to adapt to that."
To him, of course, that also includes gambling.
Freeman says the other venues in Atlanta shouldn't worry so much. Look at New Orleans, he says, where a casino helped the whole industry. "What an incredible market when it comes to entertainment, when it comes to musical performers,” he says. “If that is a market that has seen the casino strengthen the market, has seen the casino contribute to a stronger entertainment economy, I think that speaks volumes about what can be done in Atlanta and other markets."
Freeman has numbers that show casino guests book thousands of area hotel rooms each year and spend millions at nearby restaurants in New Orleans. He doesn’t give specific numbers on area venues. Instead, his argument is that casinos bring people to town, so all performance spaces do better.
However, he says casino companies might be willing to compromise in order to come to Georgia. That is: better to have casinos with small or no performance spaces than no casinos at all.
All that might have to be negotiated before state lawmakers consider casinos again next year.
A note of disclosure: Some venues in this story are WABE underwriters.