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.

While the exteriors of Lake Charles's casinos are stunning vistas by themselves, the real Louisiana casino boomtown is a couple of hundred miles north in Shreveport. According to Galveston-bred Shreveport businessman Tony Janca, Texas gambling money has brought his once-moribund new hometown back from the brink of slow death.

On what he describes as a couple of former "government garbage dumps" on both banks of the Red River in Shreveport and neighboring Bossier City, the casino-driven turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous, he says. Hotels, museums, a Hollywood soundstage, and an arts and botanical center have sprouted under the lights of the casino, and the local junior college has gone from what he calls a "joke" housed in a defunct high school to a gleaming new building with a half-dozen new courses of study feeding graduates into the casino industry.

Other stories are more personal. Janca's wife worked as a registered nurse in charge of patient discharges for many years. "When the casinos first came to town in 1995, they were hiring a lot of minorities," Janca recalls. "They were getting benefits that they didn't even understand. They would come to the hospital on welfare, not realizing that they had benefits paid for."

Glory days: Balinese co-proprietor Salvatore "Big Sam" Maceo pals around with famed pianist Carmen Cavallaro and Galveston Mayor Herbie Cartwright.
Courtesy of Rosenberg Library
Glory days: Balinese co-proprietor Salvatore "Big Sam" Maceo pals around with famed pianist Carmen Cavallaro and Galveston Mayor Herbie Cartwright.
Dolph Tillotson of The Galveston County Daily News thinks casinos could save Galveston, much as they did Biloxi, Mississippi.
Courtesy of Dolph Tillotson
Dolph Tillotson of The Galveston County Daily News thinks casinos could save Galveston, much as they did Biloxi, Mississippi.

And to Janca, that is what it is all about, in Galveston as well as Shreveport. Janca moved to Shreveport as a young man in 1973, and since then, he's weathered the boom-and-bust cycle of the Louisiana city's oil-based economy to become a commercial real estate broker and civic booster. Casinos helped save Shreveport and they can save Galveston, he says. He even knows where to put them — a vast brownfield on the bay side of the Island's eastern reaches called the East End Flats.

Without casinos, Janca believes Galveston risks sharing the fate of Indianola, a once-thriving, now-vanished Matagorda County port. "Tell me as a corporate person wanting to move my company, why I would want to move to Galveston? When these people come through your city, they are looking at the pimps on the corner and the prostitutes and the druggies. They see the problems in the schools and they say, 'This is not the quality of life we are looking for.'"

Janca is speaking of what is politely called Galveston's "demographic" problem. Galveston is full of poor people — before Ike, Galveston's poverty numbers rivaled those of New Orleans pre-Katrina. "They can't get over the Causeway," he says. "And like it or leave it, they are going to be the ones to turn the lights out. If there's any hope for that island, you are going to have to work with them and give them jobs, and then let middle management build on top of that. You don't build it from the top down."

If Galveston is going to thrive, it will need to attract more people like Adrienne Culpepper, Will Wright and Lauren Scott. Over beers at O'Malley's Stage Door Pub, a venerable, wood-paneled tavern that was one of the relative few Strand-area bars that reopened in January, the three co-founders of a new blog called Islander By Choice explained why they were willing to embody the young professionals Janca says the Island cannot attract.

To a certain degree, he's wrong. Even with all its warts, Galveston still has the power to bewitch people in a way that Houston does not. Scott works in Houston and commutes 100 miles a day. Wright, a graphic designer originally from Amarillo, could have set up his shop anywhere, but chose Galveston. Culpepper came to the Island via school at A&M-Galveston and fell in love with the town (and a husband), and never wants to leave.

Each of these late twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings loves Galveston for its unique sense of place, small size, lively night life, stout arts and cultural community, proximity to the beach, convenience to Houston's big city amenities, and historic ambience. Each of them lives in a restored historic home, and while Culpepper says that she and her husband are not planning to have children, Scott says that she and her husband will, and that she thinks Galveston Independent School District is up to the task of educating them.

On the gambling issue, all are agnostic, but very concerned. Scott says she is scared of all the high-pressure sales tactics, most of them emanating from the Daily News. "There's so much hype that we have to do it now that I worry that we are being pressured into making a hasty decision, one way or the other."

She echoes Kempner's Jurassic Park-like concerns. "You'd better have the infrastructure and regulations up front, and you better have made sure you've thought of everything, and it is almost impossible to think of everything. Because once that [casino industry] machine gets going..."

Scott adds that the town needs a cost-benefit analysis from an independent researcher. "I get in discussions with people and I hear everything from Atlantic City to 'Look what it did for Biloxi,'" she continues. "Well, who are we most like when you really look at the pieces?"

For Kempner, that's an easy one: Atlantic City. Culpepper isn't so sure about that, but she does worry about what casinos might bring her circle of friends. "What would happen to our weekly game? Where would the down-home camaraderie of our local games go?"

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