Betting on Seabrook's Future?

The city's mayor has a master plan to stop local gambling -- but he may be behind the tide

When a political issue heats up in Seabrook, southeast of Houston, Mayor Larry King has what he considers a sure-fire method of gauging the pulse of his municipality. With clipboard in hand, King stands in front of his city's sole Kroger supermarket and polls the populace.

Located at the intersection of NASA Road 1 and Highway 146, Seabrook is perhaps best known for its rows of malodorous fish markets and the seafood-eating Bengal tiger (now deceased), which in years past was caged in front of Captain Wick's restaurant. To the locals, Seabrook is the Key West of Texas -- a place where the 7,930 citizens rarely hurry, where important people never wear ties. City Council members complain that their constituents are too laid-back: at the 1992 mayoral election, one-fourth of the voters attempted to cast a ballot for Bob Lanier.

"We're trying to rectify that by telling the people where they're at," says city planner Kelly Templin. "The people are starting to catch on."

In his four-year tenure as mayor, only twice has King needed to go Krogering. When a Chinese petrochemical company, Chi Mei, purchased land that split the border between Seabrook and Baytown in 1991, Seabrook's City Council was bombarded with calls from concerned citizens. King embarked on his first excursion to Kroger, where he learned that "the people didn't want [Seabrook] to be another Pasadena. You can see the changes in the hue of the atmosphere."

Backed by King's research, Seabrook's City Council firmly guaranteed that it would enforce a local zoning ordinance forbidding heavy industry. To this day, the Chi Mei land lies unused.

Seabrook's way of life was preserved, and King's approval rating soared -- his 1992 re-election bid went unopposed, and not just because of name recognition. With his wispy white beard, the soft-spoken Mayor Larry King bears little resemblance or relation to his more famous namesakes. (He does claim that the other Larry Kings -- the author and the talk-show host -- have "Larry King for Mayor" bumper stickers on their cars.)

As the 1995 Texas legislative session looms, Seabrook's serene way of life is threatened once again. Anticipating the legalization of casino gambling in 1995, Dallas-based Hollywood Casino Corporation recently purchased a 19-acre plot of land off NASA Road 1 for a purported $7.5 million. Should gambling be legalized, observers contend that the Seabrook real estate is prime -- but that the peaceful life Seabrook has known since 1895 would quickly crap out.

"I'm not the mayor I think I am if I let gambling come in [to Seabrook]," says King, who claims that his second trip to Kroger yielded little pro-gambling sentiment. "The people of Seabrook deserve more, and they are letting me know that they don't want it."

In strictly financial terms, the case for gambling in Texas is difficult to debunk. According to Lloyd Criss -- chairman of the Texas Riverboat Association, the force behind the 1995 proposal -- gambling in Texas would yield "somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 jobs." A TRA poll showed that 67.5 percent of registered voters in the state favored gambling. A dockside gambling venue in a city the size of Seabrook, contends Criss, would require an investment of at least $20 million.

The TRA drafted a similar gambling bill in 1993. But Governor Ann Richards and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock decided at the last minute to hold the bill, providing the newly legalized dog and horse tracks a two-year, competition-free grace period.

It's widely assumed that the 1995 bill will easily pass. Because casino gambling is up and running in Louisiana -- in just its first three weeks of operation last December, the Players Lake Charles Riverboat Casino is reported to have netted $5.13 million -- Texas legislators will likely wish to maintain financial pace with rival states and pocket an estimated $8 billion in annual gambling tax revenue.

But Larry King doesn't buy the jackpot theory. "Gambling will destroy our way of life," he says. "People move to Seabrook for a number of reasons, but mostly because it's a nice community. A clean community. With very nice, very laid-back people.

"The quality of life is good here. We don't get excited about too many things. The people of Seabrook only get excited about things that would change their quality of life."

Aside from the victory over Chi Mei, King's greatest success as mayor is the passage of the Seabrook "Master Plan." King says the 106-page plan will take the city into the year 2010. "It describes what the people of Seabrook want. The Master Plan is nothing to be taken lightly. It is a legal document generated by the people of Seabrook. It is literally our Bible."

The Master Plan covers everything from economic-base analyses to the provision of "open areas where everyone can enjoy the water." King says the plan has no room for gambling -- it is "conservative," but doesn't sacrifice a "way of life" in order for Seabrook to become "a rich town."

On two occasions pro-gambling reps have made informational presentations to the Seabrook City Council about the benefits of gambling. After just one year, estimates Hollywood Casino spokesman Gil Turchin, a casino could net Seabrook between $6 and $7 million. King claims that these sessions are about as one-sided as "a possum guarding a henhouse." Gambling interests, King contends, have nothing to gain by showing the negative societal impacts -- increases in organized crime, bankruptcy, divorce.

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