In the debate for and against casinos, might there not be a third way?
Though he doesn't expressly say so, Bill Cherry would probably agree that the best thing for Galveston would be to bring back the casinos without bothering to get them legalized. And even then, he believes, they wouldn't be the powerhouse some are imagining.
Cherry spent a good chunk of his youth in Galveston's casinos, and the picture he paints makes them sound wholesome and almost domestic. The Maceo family, which owned the vast bulk of the Island's action, saw to it that neither the seamier aspects of their businesses nor their customers got out of hand.
They were also wise enough to share their wealth with Galveston's neediest. In a 2007 article in The Galveston County Daily News, retired Galveston County Attorney Jim Simpson remembered that his efforts to shut down the Balinese in the late 1940s were often stymied by the Maceo family's benevolence. "Public opinion was shaped largely by the racketeers," he remembered. "They carried out the most thorough, intelligent program of indoctrination, of brainwashing, so to speak."
Simpson specifically recalled a Maceo-led fund-raiser for the thousands of victims of the Texas City explosion. "But that was all for a very real purpose," he went on. "If you let me write the laws and administer them, I would be only too happy to part with some money."
But whether you believed the Maceos were softhearted philanthropists or Machiavellian racketeers (or both), Cherry believes that modern technology has killed Galveston's chance for success as a big-time sin city. Cheap, fast travel has brought other, more exotic locales into the easy reach of Houstonians, and air conditioning has robbed the Island of another advantage.
"People came to Galveston because it was cooler than Houston," he remembers. "They could raise their windows in the Buccaneer Hotel and be far more comfortable than they were at home in Houston."
What's more, there on I-45's cul-de-sac, Galveston is, as Cherry puts it, "on the way to nowhere." By contrast, the casinos in Lake Charles, Shreveport and Biloxi are all within a couple of miles of major east-west thoroughfares that stretch from coast to coast.
Cherry says that it has been forgotten how seasonal casinos were, that summer was always their peak season in Galveston. "Hurricanes come in those months," he points out. "Their arrival is unpredictable, and not only can they cause huge physical damage, but fiscal damage to the operating income. There's no way to adequately insure against either."
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It's his belief that Galveston's casinos were dying a natural death in the 1950s, and that they would not do as well today as many people believe. Gambling, he says, went away not because a brave lawman finally decided to do something about it, but more or less by popular demand. In the final cost-benefit analysis, it was simply just not worth the trouble anymore.
"It had absolutely nothing to do with [former Texas attorney general] Will Wilson, although don't tell him that. If it had, a Will Wilson could come in and clean up narcotics and any other form of vice. And we all know that can't happen."
Still, Cherry believes that institutionalized illegal gambling offered Galveston the best of all worlds. "The Maceos had to make certain that they were benevolent and that they didn't unnecessarily hurt the pocketbooks of Galveston residents. And they did that," he remembers.
"Second," continues Cherry, "since the Maceos were local, almost all of the money earned was spent on the Island, not siphoned off every morning by the big out-of-state corporate office to be paid to employees who lived elsewhere and divided as dividends among stockholders who lived worldwide."