Left Side: Roll Of The Dice

Casino Gambling Should Probably Be Legalized In Virginia, But Its Benefits Are Way Overrated



Casino Gambling offers a false allure

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On most social issues I’m a staunch libertarian. I firmly believe, for example, that both recreational drugs (see last month’s column) and prostitution should be legal. But whenever I contemplate the legalization of gambling I’m a little more ambivalent.

Don’t get me wrong. My ambivalence doesn’t stem from some Puritanical aversion to gambling. I’ve enjoyed it off and on over the years. In the 1980s, I’d occasionally bet on horse races, either at the track or at the Off Track Betting parlors that were scattered around New York City at the time. A few times a year I’d also go to casinos in Atlantic City or Vegas. My favorite game was craps.

No, my ambivalence doesn’t come from moral judgment. It comes from a recognition that casinos aren’t a great bet for cities looking to boost their economy. Take Atlantic City, for example. When the once thriving beach resort fell into dismal decay in the 1970s, developers promised that they could bring the city back to life if only the legislature would allow them to build casinos on the boardwalk. Needless to say, the legislature agreed. But it turned out to be a scam. While the venture enriched the casino owners themselves, and gave bored old ladies from the north the opportunity to sit in front of slot machines for hours on end, it did nothing for the surrounding area. On the contrary, the streets immediately surrounding the casinos grew seedier than ever.

I’m not suggesting that the casinos actually precipitated further decline. Only that they didn’t bring the promised benefits to the community.

The leaders of Hampton Roads and the commonwealth should bear that in mind if they ever seriously consider legalizing gambling in this region or throughout the state.

But let’s say they did. What would the ramifications be?

One big decision to be made would be where to allow casino gambling? A plausible location in Norfolk would be the erstwhile cruise terminal, the construction of which turned out to be a pretty bad roll of the dice. I know people who’ve proposed a casino for nearby Waterside, as well, given that the city can’t seem to make it work as anything else.

But would casinos really be the best use of those or any other spaces in Hampton Roads?