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Casinos hold little allure for D.C., Virginia

Jurisdictions unswayed by nearby outlets

- - Sunday, December 23, 2012

With casino approvals expanding down the East Coast into the mid-Atlantic, two jurisdictions remain resistant to their financial allure — the District and Virginia — and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Maryland's sixth casino, expected to be built at National Harbor, would only be about a mile from the borders of both Virginia and the District. It is expected to draw many customers from the nation's capital and the Old Dominion.

While both Virginia and the District have legalized some forms of gambling in the past (both have lotteries and the District recently legalized online gambling before repealing the law) neither has, nor is expected to have, an actual casino.

"There's always been an attitude that the nation's capital should not have a bricks-and-mortar casino," D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown said. Mr. Brown, at-large independent who visits casinos himself and introduced the online gambling legislation, considers himself one of the more pro-gambling members of the council.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans agreed with Mr. Brown and noted that not only would the council have to pass legislation, but it would need approval from the U.S. Congress.

"Generally there is a lot of opposition in Congress to gambling in the nation's capital, and among the residents, as well, in the District," Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said.

Mr. Evans, along with D.C. Council member Marion Barry, Ward 9 Democrat, introduced a bill in September that was meant to study how gambling in Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware affect the District. Although Mr. Evans said the bill likely will expire at the end of the year and not be reintroduced, he could see a benefit to a casino across the Potomac River in National Harbor.

"I think actually a National Harbor casino would be helpful to the city. You know it brings people to the region that might not come otherwise," Mr. Evans said.

As for online gambling in the District, Mr. Brown said it is a good way to bring in tax revenue from the industry without having a casino that "possibly would also bring what I think a lot of social activists are concerned about, a different kind of element to the city."

"Keep in mind that it's already going on in the District of Columbia. Thousands of our residents are playing right now, today, without any regulations and without the city reaping any of those revenue benefits," Mr. Brown said.

In Virginia, the story is different, but the conclusion is the same: no casinos.

Toni-Michelle Travis, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, said this likely has to do with the Protestant tradition in the state.

"Many people would have reservations because of their religious beliefs," Ms. Travis said.

Don Blake, chairman and president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, said his organization opposes gambling in the state because it damages individuals, families and culture, and is "against the principles in the Bible."

"Gambling is a plague on people," said Mr. Blake, who said the reason people gamble is because they "have desires that they can't control sometimes."

Even with a growing and more liberal population in the northern part of the state, Mr. Blake said the makeup of the Virginia House of Delegates and the state Senate make potential casinos decades away.

Ms. Travis also noted the population boom in the northern part of the state, and said "this won't be the only issue," between this region and the rest of the state.

"I think very shortly the priorities of Northern Virginia will dominate the state versus the priorities of our more rural legislature," she said.

The economic strength of the state, Ms. Travis said, is also something that should keep Virginia from needing to look to casinos for added revenue.

"We have a very balanced budget," she said. "I think that would be a very last resort for legislatures to consider as a way to raise money."

Still, Virginia state Sen. L. Louise Lucas has pre-filed a bill for the 2013 General Assembly session that would at least look at casinos in the state, albeit in a limited nature.

"It's been so long since the question has come up," said Robert Whitacre, who consults for Ms. Lucas, Portsmouth Democrat, on casinos.

Mr. Whitacre disagreed with the religious argument, saying that while that may have been true 10 or 15 years ago, it is not the case today. The best-case situation, Mr. Whitacre said, would be to authorize casino gambling in certain jurisdictions based on community support.

If casinos were to be legalized in either Virginia or the District, casino companies almost certainly would jump at the opportunity to build, but they're not trying to push the door open.

Karen Bailey, director of public affairs for Penn National Gaming Inc., said the company has not to her knowledge made an effort to push for casinos in the District or Virginia, and that it is a "matter of local appetite."

"We're a company that's always focused on expansion and new opportunities, so we never say no to examining new opportunities, but it's too early for us to speculate on, you know, what we would do," Ms. Bailey said.

Gordon Absher, vice president of public affairs at MGM Resorts International, the company that likely will build a casino in National Harbor, said there are a lot of misperceptions about gambling.

From his personal experience, Mr. Absher found that in Maryland the definition of a casino was a slot operation, whereas MGM is in the "destination resort business." Mr. Absher said 60 percent of the revenue comes from nongambling sources such as hotel rooms, events and food, and this is, "one of the first things that we begin to communicate when a new market starts to consider bringing in gaming."

Mr. Absher and Ms. Bailey both mentioned that their companies will not try and push their industry onto an uninterested public.

"We don't create new markets," Mr. Absher said.