The Chamber of SW Florida conducts Gambling Forum

Report By Mark Andrews

Kudos to the Chamber of SW Florida for pulling together an informative luncheon forum on the casino question in Lee County. A good spectrum of participants for the panel was sought out so that opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of the idea could be explored.

THE CASINO DISCUSSION: HEAR THE PROS AND CONS! was moderated by David Plazas, Community Conversation Editor of the News-Press who did an
outstanding job of asking pertinent questions of the panel in a clearly focused manner. Panel members were Sheriff Mike Scott, Lee County FL, Rabbi Bruce Diamond, The Community Free Synagogue, Major Thomas Louden, Area Commander, The Salvation Army, and Phil Nichols, CEO Whitestar Strategies (consultant for the casino project).

In the opening statements of the panel it became very clear that Phil Nichols and Sheriff Scott were in favor of bringing destination casinos to Lee County, while Rabbi Diamond and Major Louden advocated for a slower and more reasoned approach to solving our current problems.

Phil Nichols, a consultant for the casino project, pointed to the number of jobs that would come to Lee County and the importance of Lee getting its fair share of the coming gambling expansion in Florida. He pointed out that his research showed that casinos are safe and do not encourage crime. The tune he continued to sing was that of “jobs and money for Lee County” while avoiding any discussion of the resulting social costs. His pro-casino view was no surprise to anyone.

Major Louden spoke from his experience in dealing with addiction to gambling and cautioned that problems resulting from additional gambling would be very difficult to deal with and the fabric of our current society would suffer. He made the point that families are the most important ingredient in a community and that expanded gambling here would be detrimental to families.

Rabbi Diamond questioned whether this is really a good deal for the County. He was concerned about the vast amounts of money that will be lost by the people of Lee

County and then those dollars leaving the local economy. His comment was that if this is such a good idea then why don’t we as a community build and run it ourselves, thus keeping the money here. He re-emphasized his point when a question from the audience revealed that Lee County would only get 1% of the casino revenue. Much more time to plan out a reasonable approach to solving our problems would be needed in his view.

Sheriff Scott made his view known right away which surprised many people---we have had gambling here for 55 years, so why be hesitant? When the subject of crime came up he denied the notion that gambling breeds crime, suggesting rather that it is population that does so….the more people, the more crime. He then went on to state that in a recent trip to the casino in Tampa, he was impressed with the security and the lack of crime. In his final statement he said that a Lee county casino would breed less crime than our local hospitals.

In the final wrap up statements of each participant Rabbi Diamond and Major Louden stated again their view that quick fixes are not the answer, and should be avoided in favor of a carefully planned approach that would be safe and sound for the long term. Amazingly, Sheriff Scott shot back that 55 years of gambling at the Bonita Springs Dog Track is “the long term effect” and we have nothing to worry about.

Trying to discern from applause whether the audience was pro or con would be difficult, and no straw poll was taken, but I would guess it was about 50/50. I think the crowd (about 75 people) went away knowing more about the subject than when they arrived and were given some very sobering information to think about before making a decision.

From my perspective I was impressed by the concerns of the Rabbi and the Major in that they spoke from their experience in dealing with broken families. They are clearly concerned with the fabric of our society and trying to make this a better place in which to live, not one that is torn with destructive addictions and crime. I also appreciated the way David Plazas introduced the subject always using the word gambling along with the casino preferred “gaming”. My surprised disappointment of the day was Sheriff Scott’s choice to support the casino project, a clear departure from the position articulated by the Florida Sheriff’s Association.