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.

Hardcore poker players speak of "bad beats" and being "on tilt." If a more logical play is defeated by an opponent who played foolishly but got astronomically lucky, that is a bad beat. And if that bad beat causes you to play recklessly and make foolish choices for a few hands more, you are said to be on tilt.

Galveston got a bad beat, and it wasn't just Hurricane Ike. Storms are a part of life on the Gulf Coast, and people will tell you they are "the price you pay for living in paradise." It was Hurricane Ike coming a few days from the global economic meltdown, which is being keenly felt in Galveston through massive, crushing job losses at core economic drivers like the hospital complex. And now some believe that these body blows are causing others to rush into decisions on tilt.

Kempner calls it "quick-fix" thinking. Island financial analyst David Stanowski calls it a "Hail Mary" pass.

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.

Culpepper has a medical analogy. "If this island were perfect, we wouldn't even be talking about this, but now people see [casinos] as a Band-Aid," he explains. "But there are so many other things we could do — the commuter rail system, improving education, making Galveston more walkable. Once we did [those things], and then if we still wanted it, then maybe we could look at gambling."

Kempner would agree. He notes that few save for diehards were talking up casino gambling before Ike. "People always wait until the absolute worst economic time and then they discuss this as an economic quick fix," he says.

The last time gambling was a serious issue on the Island was in the depths of the oil bust, he recalls, and even then, Galveston voted it down over and over again. "They tried three times and people learned a lot about the issue and how it would affect their daily lives, and they voted it down, two-to-one the first time and almost by that margin the next two times," he recalls. "It was very solidly defeated every time, with turnouts as large as presidential elections."

But times are worse now, so the same results are not as assured. "Things are at their very worst right this moment," Kempner says, heaving a sigh. "We have real problems. I'm not denying that for a second. Please don't quote me as saying that everything is wonderful down here, because it sure as hell isn't, but there are other ways to solve this besides a quick fix that will cause more problems than it will benefit."

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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