Betting on Seabrook's Future?

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.

Seabrook city planner Templin agrees that the benefits of gambling can be misleading: "[Gambling is] a double-edged sword. They're talking about bringing in more money annually into the city coffers than we have in [the current] city budget. We spend about $5.5 million a year, and they're promising us between $6 and $7 million in the first year.

"First of all, we wouldn't know what to do with the money, although I'm sure we'd figure it out pretty quick."

The problem, continues Templin, is what would happen after Seabrook had blown its first-year profits. "As the legislation stands, there are only 21 [gambling] permits. What happens when that goes to 42 or 63? Our piece of the pie gets smaller. But we'll have already budgeted out our $6 to $7 million. What happens when the magic wears off?"

King adds that only in theory would Seabrook profit from gambling. To accommodate the mass influx of casino-going tourists, all of Seabrook's roads would have to be repaved and/or expanded. The rise in visitors would then necessitate a rise in low-cost apartments. But King claims that, according to the Master Plan, Seabrook is already at its maximum 60 percent apartment capacity.

"Yes, we would make some money in gambling taxes," he says. "But if we didn't have gambling, we would not need those taxes. And we would continue on with our Master Plan."

The battle for legalized gambling is in its first stages: insiders say a realistic grand-opening date for the first casino is November 1995. And while the pro-gambling factions are hard at work editing the draft of their bill, the side that would oppose legalization -- the moral and religious faction -- has been remarkably quiet so far. King agrees with that side, and he takes offense when gambling interests say the issue is no longer a moral issue, but strictly one of entertainment and business.

"We could go on forever about that," he says. "Any way you look at it, this is a moral issue. Most organized religions frown on gambling."

It is important to note that in the upcoming legislative session, the term gambling will not be used. "Gaming, gaming, gaming, gaming," explains Hollywood Casino's Suzanne Seifert during an interview. "I'm trying to make you politically correct. 'Gaming' is the politically correct term."

"It's not 'gambling,' it's 'gaming' -- doesn't that give you a better feeling about it?" asks King. "The whole family playing games. Well, they are playing a game of chance. Their children are in day-care centers in the casinos, getting a pretty good start on the life of getting something for nothing."

To counteract the effects of casino-ized political correctness, King says, he is working on a resolution that will prohibit the use of the word gaming in official Seabrook business.

Another beef King has with big-business gambling interests is how, he says, they manipulate the law. Even if gambling were to pass statewide, it would still be up for a municipal referendum. Though a Hollywood Casino employee contends that "if a referendum fails, you're dead," King says that after a prescribed waiting period, gambling interests can call second and third referenda. A Seabrook referendum costs only $3,000 -- "That's nothing to these people," says King -- so gambling interests could force their way by simply wearing down the populace. (In Biloxi, Mississippi, for example, gambling failed in a first referendum. After the year's grace period, the Mississippi Gaming Association funded a second. It passed with 63 percent approval.)

To counteract the gambling industry's ability to wear down a populace, King has suggested a one-referendum resolution in Seabrook.

Despite King's efforts, gambling in Seabrook may in fact be a done deal. "If a vote were to be conducted today," says a Seabrook City Councilman, "the vote would be six-to-one for."

The councilman goes on to say that King was at one time very much for gambling, and has come half-circle not because of personal convictions but because of the feelings of the populace. This is, after all, an election year, and though the councilmember says that King has been an extremely popular mayor, "some of his support has backed off lately."  

King denies that his actions are politically motivated: "In two years I've gone from knowing absolutely nothing about gambling to being fairly well educated on it. I think the so-called [positive] effects of gambling have been blown out of proportion."

He subscribes to newspapers from Biloxi and Ashbury, Illinois -- two cities where the legalization of gambling was hard-fought. He has also traveled incognito to gambling havens in Mississippi and Louisiana and resorted to his supermarket system.

"There's a saying that if you have something everywhere else, you may as well have it here," he reports. "That's bullshit. You've gotta stop somewhere. You've gotta draw the line.

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