New Gaming Bill Focuses On “Destination Resorts”

Senator Brandon Beach has introduced a revised bill that would pave the way for Las Vegas style casino gaming in Georgia, SB 79. Representative Ron Stephens has a companion bill in the Georgia House, HB 158. Unlike previous attempts, this bill pares back the number of casinos to two and focuses the scope on “destination resorts”. What does that mean?

Under the prior bill there was to be one “Destination resort” casino with a minimum $1 Billion investment in the Atlanta area/North Georgia, and up to six additional casinos throughout the rest of the state that would have been smaller, more locally focused casinos.

The new bill has one casino located in “a county with a population over 900,000” that would require a minimum $2 Billion capital investment to gain a license. Currently, Fulton County is the only county with over 900,000 residents, but in theory Gwinnett County could conceivably qualify depending on the final language and date population is figured. Gwinnett’s population is currently estimated at 896,000 people.

The second casino license would require a minimum of $450 Million investment, and would be located in a county with greater than 250,000 population but less than 900,000. While the working assumption is that this would be a casino located in Savannah (and even more specifically, adjacent to the Convention Center on Hutchinson Island), the counties that currently fit this description are Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Chatham, and Clayton. Cherokee at 236,000 people, like Gwinnett above, is close enough to be considered in the theoretical discussion but is not likely the intended designation for the state’s second casino license.

Interestingly, there’s enough wiggle room to consider the casino could be at the airport in Clayton County, as some recent speculation has suggested. Hartsfield-Jackson’s complex straddles the Fulton-Clayton line.

The reality of the bill is that the larger “Destination” casino will be in the Atlanta area, in Fulton County. A gaming company that would put up a $2BN investment will not want another destination resort in the same area code. Thus, Chatham should be considered most likely for the second casino under this plan, to boost the coastal city’s convention and tourism industry. These will be complementary, not competing, venues.

The revenues generated from gaming operations would be taxed under this bill at 20%, up from 12% in the prior working bill. The casinos would not receive economic development incentives from the state.

As an editorial note, this bill cleans up a lot of issues legislators heard after the prior bill was filed. It is focused more on keeping gaming dollars at home that currently leave Georgia and bringing in additional dollars from conventioneers and tourists. As such, it’s an issue I will be supporting at PolicyBEST. As now structured, this is an opportunity to bring a new industry to the state, with professional career above average wage jobs for the hospitality industry. There’s a workforce development component here, as the companies will have to train Georgians to work in the gaming industry. (It’s not like we have a few thousand blackjack dealers hanging around – they’ll have to be trained.) And as far as tax policy goes, it’s a way to recapture a lot of Georgia’s dollars that are currently going elsewhere, as well as bring in additional dollars not currently coming here.

This remains an uphill battle, but one deserves a fair hearing on the merits. I look forward to the discussion over the next couple of months as we determine if now is the appropriate time for gaming in Georgia.

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