2017-08-02 / Opinions

Virginia attorney says casinos may be the best answer to coalfield crisis

By FRANK KILGORE

Now is the time for Virginia to look seriously at allowing tightly regulated casinos into its poorest jurisdictions. Many individuals and well-meaning organizations oppose gambling as a job creating resource but for all the downsides that may be cited there are few things more degrading and stressful than the lack of jobs and hope. Such poverty manifests itself into increased domestic violence, broken families, drug use, mass incarcerations and cyclical generations of children whose options in life are limited from birth.

Over thirty states have some form of casino type gambling so our smartest state officials could soon determine which programs are the best and most effective with the least downsides. For example, Maryland’s annual gambling revenues have surpassed one billion dollars (and growing) and a very significant portion of that stash comes from Virginians. Imagine what a billion dollars a year would do for Virginia’s ten poorest counties and cities. States that have casino gambling, such as West Virginia and Maryland, build their facilities close to their common borders with Virginia and that giant sucking sound you hear is Virginia money going across those borders, tax free.

The best Virginia counties for testing this potential turnaround industry are Buchanan and Lee Counties. By fortune of geographic location Lee County is wedged between two non-casino states, Tennessee and Kentucky. The three states come together at the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park which draws nearly one million visitors per year and is served by a four lane tunnel and arterial road, Route 25E, that hosts 30,000 or so vehicles per day. Knoxville, Tennessee and Middlesboro, Kentucky, and all the turf in between, would also be huge sources of visitors to western Lee County casinos.

Buchanan County juts northward between Kentucky, a noncasino state, and West Virginia, a casino state. Having a casino there would be a statistician’s dream as it would offer a vivid comparison of competing facilities. Unlike Lee County, Buchanan is depopulating rapidly (nearly 50 percent since the 1970s coal boom) as coal and gas jobs and related revenues dwindle.

If Buchanan County was a burning building it would be declared a six-alarm fire, yet this proud community at one time was one of the richest in the nation. That county is also blessed by a well-visited public recreational area, the Breaks Interstate Park, home of the deepest gorges in the East. Pike County, eastern Kentucky’s largest populated jurisdiction and home to a thriving hospital, college, medical school and other growth industries, is a neighbor.

And, if Cherokee, North Carolina is a good example, hundreds of much needed direct and indirect jobs would be provided, county residents would receive a big spike in personal average income and the county tax bases would jump skyward overnight. Then, instead of being disproportionate state revenue receivers, these poor Virginia counties would become state revenue payers, freeing up state subsidies for other needy localities. Should these experiments thrive then the legislation enabling such incubators could be expanded to other poor cities and counties. I wager that a truly objective economic and social impact study of these prospects would be very compelling, particularly if the best national casino models are imposed.

If anyone has a better (and realistic) idea how to turn the poorest southwest Virginia counties into more prosperous economies then they sure are keeping it a secret. To make sure that voters in the two counties support this idea the authorizing statute could require referendums prior to bringing in the casinos. Let the people of Lee and Buchanan counties decide if the gamble is worth the risk. It is easy for people with steady jobs or good retirement plans to poohpooh making such a move but for others not so fortunate life literally is “root, hog or die.”

Like many Southwest Virginia residents in my age group I grew up without running water, central heating and cooling or realistic expectations of better days. Growing your own food and bagging a rabbit or squirrel in the 1950s and ‘60s were not just genteel hobbies. Poverty hurts.

Frank Kilgore is an attorney and author in St. Paul, Virginia. This column appeared July 23 in the Roanoke Times.

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