Grand Strand leaders don’t expect casino bill to get traction, rally opposing gambling scheduled for the weekend

08/02/2014 2:55 PM

08/02/2014 2:59 PM

Every few years, you can bet on hearing the renewed debate about casinos possibly coming to the Grand Strand.

Those who support casinos say that the facilities would boost tourism to those who are looking to gamble while opponents say the crime that could come with them is a cause for concern.

“Any time you’ve got gambling going on you’re going to have people fighting it,” Myrtle Beach Councilman Randal Wallace said. “When we had video poker here, it was a never-ending fight.”

That recurring debate around the issue is why Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said he is not prepared to discuss a bill that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, says he plans to introduce next year that would allow upscale casinos on the Grand Strand and use the new tax revenue to fix S.C. roads and bridges.

“It’s all speculation and I don’t like to speculate on something that’s not concrete,” Rhodes said. “It’s been tried before and it’s failed before.”

Rutherford said the casinos would create a multi-billion dollar revenue stream that could be used to pay for much-needed renovations to the state’s roads without increasing the near national-low gas tax rate – which has been in place since 1987.

But a group of local residents don’t like the idea of gambling being allowed in the area and plan to rally against casinos – and a list of other topics – at the Myrtle Beach Peoples’ Rally being held Friday and Saturday.

Rally organizer David Hucks said the event is based in Christian beliefs, with several people – including former Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride – scheduled to speak.

“We feel like too many decisions are driven by money and not enough is driven by heart,” he said.

The rally had been planned since the spring and as things have occurred throughout the spring and summer, the main topic of discussion has shifted a few times. The event is being held at TicketReturn.com Field in Myrtle Beach, but Hucks – who said he hopes to make the rally an annual event – said he is looking for a larger venue next year.

Hucks said topics to be discussed at the rally include the recent ban on beach tents; the violence seen during Memorial Day weekend that left three dead and injured seven others in eight shootings; as well as the possibility of casinos eventually coming to the Grand Strand.

“Myrtle Beach has been a family town,” Hucks said. “The last thing we want to do is to become a gambling town.”

The Grand Strand already offers a gambling attraction with Big M Casino Cruise boat that takes gamblers into international waters and operates out of Little River. SunCruz casino boat, which also operated out of Little River, closed Monday afternoon.

The Catawba Indian Nation also has sought a casino on its York County reservation, but the S.C. Supreme Court ruled against the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe this year.

Video poker machines were allowed in South Carolina until they were outlawed by the state Supreme Court in 1999.

Rutherford announced the bill in July after 80 percent of the Democrats who voted in the June primary election supported a ballot question asking voters if they favored changing gaming laws to fund S.C. roads.

That vote is nonbinding and used mostly as a poll by the Democratic party for information purposes, said Sandy Martin, Horry County director of Voters Registration and Elections.

To become law, Rutherford’s bill would need to be approved by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the S.C. General Assembly. It then could be placed on the November 2016 ballot. If voters approve the measure, the amendment goes back to the General Assembly for a second approval before becoming law.

But Rhodes said he doesn’t envision the bill making it out of the General Assembly.

“I don’t see big-time casinos getting through Columbia,” Rhodes said. “It’s like me walking out here and making a prediction that I’m going to win the lottery. I don’t see anything realistic on that any time soon.”

Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brad Dean said he has not looked into the possibility of casinos hitting the Grand Strand.

“We have not studied the topic and our board has not discussed the topic, so I have no information to offer regarding the potential impact (positive or negative) on our community and economy,” he said in an email.

Even though Rhodes said he thinks the chances of Rutherford’s law passing are unlikely, the mayor said he’s not sure having casinos in Myrtle Beach would be a good thing.

“You have to look at what’s going on in Atlantic City with the closing of those two facilities there,” he said. “You have to look into why they closed.”

Showboat Casino and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City are preparing to close by September. Revel Casino Hotel, Atlantic City’s newest casino, is up for sale at a bankruptcy auction after being open a little more than two years.

“I don’t think that gambling is the panacea they think it is,” Wallace said. “I think it brings a lot of problems with it that we don’t have here now – at least not on the level of organized crime and things of that nature.”

Whether or not the law passes, Hucks said he expects many of the rally attendees Friday and Saturday will express their desire to keep casinos out of town. He said he expects about 12,000 people will attend the rally.

“This is a call for Myrtle Beach to be the city it was designed to be, the city it’s supposed to be,” he said. “The fabric of it is about Christian ideas for how to approach problems.”

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