Left Side: Roll Of The Dice

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

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?


Again, I’m deeply ambivalent. One of the problems with casinos, in addition to the false promise of economic benefit, is that they tend to degrade local culture. Indeed, Las Vegas, though it can be fun for a few days of debauchery, represents much that is wrong with American culture generally, with its penchant for all-you-can-eat buffets, egregious waste (especially of water), low-brow entertainment and other mindless distractions.

Riverboat gambling makes a little more sense. The Elizabeth River is ideally suited for it, and if casinos were confined to boats they wouldn’t take up valuable real estate.

But even that prospect leaves me muttering, meh. As a social libertarian, I’d be hard pressed to argue that casino gambling should continue to be outlawed in this region and this state. As a believer in the importance of authentic local culture, however, I would argue that there are much better uses for our resources.

When I envision a much-improved Hampton Roads, I see a collection of cities filled with great architecture, art galleries, music venues, distinctive, independently owned shops, local food and fish markets, and beautiful streetscapes interspersed with parks that people are actually encouraged to use.

Alas, it seems to me that very few people care about such things. Which is not to say that casino gambling will be coming to Hampton Roads any time soon. In a state so moralistic that legislators won’t even allow for private liquor stores, it’s unlikely that they’ll openly embrace something as “sinful” as gambling and its associated activities.

Part of me is so irritated by the prevailing conservative “Christian” mentality that I’d love to see a proliferation of casinos, off-track betting parlors and other such establishments just to irk the moralists.

But that’s not really a good reason to squarely get behind the idea. There are higher priorities. If Hampton Roads is ever to achieve its potential as a metropolitan area, its leaders need to seek ways to strengthen our local and regional identity, in the way that Charleston, Austin, Portland, Seattle and other cities have.

What do we have to offer that no one other city or region does? Clearly, casinos are not the answer, regardless of reasonable justifications for legalized gambling.

Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 20 years. He can be reached at tomrobotham@gmail.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.

Categories: Left Side