Is Casino Gambling in the Cards for Galveston?

Backers says it can save the water-logged city, while opponents say it will bring nothing but ruin.

Much of the anti-casino contingent comes from the usual suspects: those with moral or religious axes to grind, such as advocates for the poor, church groups and other social conservatives. The most prominent and vocal exception to this general rule is Harris "Shrub" Kempner, scion of one of Galveston's leading old money families and a member of the city's advisory Finance Committee. As the de facto leader of the anti-gambling side, Kempner opposes it on none of those grounds. Instead, he thinks that casinos will ruin Galveston's special character while doing little to help rank and file Islanders economically.

Tillotson and Kempner have locked horns in the pages of the Daily News and privately. The debate has taken on shades of Jurassic Park, with Tillotson in Richard Attenborough's role as resort champion and Kempner in Jeff Goldblum's role as a chaos theory-obsessed believer in geographical determinism. Tillotson believes the beasts can be neutered and controlled, while Kempner believes it is hubris to think that Galveston can contain the kind of money they will bring to town.

Where Tillotson sees casinos as Galveston's last, best hope for a relatively quick infusion of new capital, investment and jobs, Kempner sees their potential to run out the remainder of the dwindling quality jobs still on the Island. "If there's a promise of casinos, it's very much less likely that you will have a first-class, or even a major-class, medical school and research complex on the Island," he says. "Those two things don't coexist very well in a tight, constrained geographic space. I believe it would be bad money driving out good money."

Harris "Shrub" Kempner leads Galveston's anti-gambling contingent. He believes casinos could turn Galveston into a Gulf Coast version of Atlantic City.
Harris "Shrub" Kempner leads Galveston's anti-gambling contingent. He believes casinos could turn Galveston into a Gulf Coast version of Atlantic City.

"Good money? Whose money is good and whose is bad?" Tillotson counters. "Hey, show me the 'good' money yearning to come to Galveston."

Galveston's chronic middle-class housing crunch is another problem Kempner believes casinos would aggravate. "The Powerful Publisher" — Kempner has taken to calling Tillotson that of late — "who talks about having middle-class housing here is also pushing the one economic development program that is guaranteed to destroy most of the middle-class housing we still have."

Tillotson grants the severity of the shortage before going on the counter-attack. "It actually seems to me that new jobs and new investment in the community might help the middle-class housing problem, not make it worse."

Middle-class flight has been a problem for Galveston since long before Ike. Some blame a school district that grades out in the bottom quarter of Texas districts, while others blame the lack of jobs in the area, and still others the housing crunch. (Galveston's middle-class housing market is perverted by its tight geographic constraints and proximity to wealthy Houstonians in search of second homes.)

Kempner says the housing problem will be impossible to fix with casinos in the mix. "We have a chance now to do something new and different — raze some houses, do some full-scale development in places where it has never been done before," he says. "Maybe. But not if you bring in casinos."

Tillotson believes that carefully crafted enabling legislation — the nuts-and-bolts tweaking that goes on after a bill becomes law — can safely contain the casino industry and its growth and thus allow room for the middle class to thrive. Just look at Biloxi, a Mississippi Gulf Coast town that boomed in the wake of casinos and was able to stay alive and rebuild after the town was leveled by Hurricane Katrina.

Okay, Kempner counters, just look at Biloxi. "If you go behind the casinos in Biloxi, there's not much improvement," he says. "And that's with more room to grow out than we have in Galveston. Biloxi is better than Atlantic City, but most places are."

Indeed, you won't find Atlantic City near the top of many "Places Rated" charts. Thirty years ago, when gambling returned to the Jersey Shore, it was supposed to have been the salvation of that fading resort. While the casinos have brought tens of thousands of jobs and millions of visitors, Atlantic City is now almost always described as a town where gilded pleasure palaces abut crack-ravaged East Coast slums. The city's crime rate is still more than three and a half times the national average and a quarter of the town's people live in poverty.

And a Galveston that allows casinos is a Galveston fast on its way to becoming Texas's Atlantic City, Kempner maintains. First, as islands, they share the same topography, and Atlantic City is the only American island that has allowed casinos so far. Second, he believes the casinos will find a way to subvert the enabling legislation by corrupting local government, and then, like a voracious pack of velociraptors, proceed to "breed" and overrun Galveston. "The casinos were all supposed to be in one area of [Atlantic City's] Boardwalk, and guess what — they worked out a way where they could convince the state and the locality where they could jump out all over the city."

Kempner believes that casinos have helped foster Atlantic City's flamboyant level of public corruption. Four of the previous eight Atlantic City mayors have been busted for corruption, and in 2008, the Associated Press reported that the former city council president was facing 40 months in federal prison after his conviction in a bribery scandal that also claimed two other council members. While not all of these scandals are directly tied to casinos, many local observers say that the lure of easy money has permeated from the town's casino floors to the highest levels of local government.

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