Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
As a native Cincinnatian, I often cannot help but to make fun of Cleveland. This is a habit I had to repress when I led an Appalachia trip to the city. Quips about Brady Quinn and burning rivers were muted for the sake of a sober examination of the Rust Belt brand of economic distress that has, perhaps unfairly, become the reputation of the former sixth-largest city in the United States.
The resident Cleveland, however, will have you know that the city is on the precipice of a Renaissance, regardless of where LeBron James plays basketball. One pillar of the ongoing effort to revitalize downtown is the Horseshoe Casino opening next month.
Casinos have been frequently employed over the past 25 years as tools for economic growth and development. It started in 1976, when New Jersey legalized casino gambling to promote tourism in Atlantic City.
The expansion, though, really took off in 1989 when Iowa legalized riverboat casino gambling in response to a downturn in its riverside manufacturing as well as competitive pressures from prospective Native American casinos in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Since then, casino gambling has been legalized in 21 other states and Native American tribes have built hundreds of casinos on reservations all over the country. In 2010, there were a total of 941 casinos in 40 states.
The most recent legalization occurred here in Massachusetts. In November, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill authorizing the licensing and construction of three land-based casinos—one in the Western part of the Commonwealth, one in the South and one in the Boston area.
Massachusetts’ motivations for adopting casino gambling are the same as any other states: to attract and retain revenue. For too long, Massachusetts has watched resident casino patrons cross state lines to gamble away money at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. Now the Bay State wants its share of the winnings.
Originally, politicians had to be more discreet and cautious about being pro-gambling. Gambling is a vice or “sin industry,” so policymakers and casino developers had to emphasize the economic benefits of gambling to a skeptical populace while belaying concerns about its tentatively destructive impact.
Iowa’s riverboats were the conservative strategy for the legislature to introduce casinos to the Midwest. They married the deviousness of gambling to a romantic nostalgia for the old west. The water created a distance between the gambling and the rest of society, making it a more permissible activity.
The format also established clear parameters. Initially, patrons could only bring a limited amount of money on board, and games lasted only as long as the vessel was sailing.
Casino proponents no longer have to be so coy. Patrick was quite open about his desire to bring casinos to the Commonwealth. He instigated a years-long legislative battle to make his vision a reality, but now Massachusetts is poised to make a killing on three casino licenses that will stuff hundreds of millions of dollars into the state coffers.
Accompanying this open advocacy of casino gambling are more liberal attitudes about the size and location of casinos. As casinos spread across the Midwest, they gradually creep onto land and into more central locations.
Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino will open later this year in the Higbee Building—an old department store located in the heart of downtown. Movie-goers, sports fans, tourists and anyone else who heads downtown will be just a stone’s throw away from a gambling venue open 24/7. The casino intended for Boston will offer similar accessibility but to a greater metropolitan area and greater volume of tourists.
The perks of new jobs, new entertainment, and a better-financed state budget should not be allowed to blind the casual observer to the potential drawbacks of building a casino in our backyard. The primary concerns cited by casino opponents are problem and pathological gambling behaviors.
Pathological gambling is an impulse control disorder formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and it affects 1 to 2 percent of the population. Problem gambling—which is marginally less severe—affects an additional 2 to 3 percent. One study estimated that they account for between 25 and 45 percent of casinos’ annual revenue. They tend to be younger, poorer and uneducated, and they often have a history of behavioral disorders.
While it is easy to celebrate the arrival of a new, fun public attraction, we should acknowledge the risk associated with betting on casinos. The Horseshoe Casino will help reinvigorate downtown Cleveland, but at what cost?
More relevantly, what are the perils of a casino in Boston? This is a city with 250,000 students, some of whom might be desperate for a little extra spending money or convinced they have the savvy to beat the odds. This school has already had its own embarrassing gambling scandal. Here’s hoping that the new casino doesn’t bring out the worst in future Eagles.