A Vote On Gaming Sends The Mud Flying

From Biloxi to Detroit, tax-starved communities across the country have long welcomed casinos. Not so Long Beach, Miss., a town of 17,000 just 16 miles from Biloxi. Twice before, residents voted down proposals to allow beachfront gambling.

But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Long Beach, the debate over casinos has erupted anew. When gaming proponents this spring proposed another vote to allow casinos into a choice spot near the harbor, it set off an emotional battle. And after the news broke that a former town alderman had not only optioned the land on which a casino could be built but had also funded the ad campaign backing the casino, the fight over the town's future got downright nasty. As town meetings swirled with thinly veiled allegations of corruption and nearly ended in fistfights, one thing was clear: Even as gaming has become accepted in much of the country, it remains a flash point.

Casino advocates say the town desperately needs the revenues that gaming would bring. "Aug. 29 changed everything," says Allen D. Holder Jr., the alderman who proposed the new vote.

But opponents argue that the city's financial woes were being exaggerated and that new stores and condos could just as easily refill the coffers. "Why would you want to put a big casino in a little town like this?" asks Terri Long, whose home near the shore was flattened by Katrina. "It will completely change the character of the area." Still, when the Chamber of Commerce offered to pick up the tab for a referendum for the broke town, even casino opponents went along with the idea of letting citizens vote once more.

In the weeks before the June 27 election, townspeople discovered that Jimmy Levens, a former alderman who runs a construction company, had bought an option to purchase the land on which a casino would go. The news came a day after The Sun Herald, the local paper, revealed that a company owned by his daughters had reimbursed the chamber the $15,000 cost of the referendum. Soon, voters learned that a group that had blanketed the city with pro-casino signs, letters, and a TV ad campaign had also been funded with $65,000 from Levens. Meanwhile, an anti-casino group led by a Baptist preacher had just $3,000 to spend.

Opponents tried to call off the vote but failed, and by 54.7% to 45.3%, Long Beach backed gaming. Richard Burton, an alderman, calls the outcome a travesty. "This is just the worst kind of nepotism and self-interested politics," he says.

Levens and Holder say that's little more than sour grapes. "I didn't walk up to the ballot box with anyone to vote," Levens says. The important thing, he says, is that the people got a chance to vote, and now it's up to the city to decide what comes next.

By Jane Sasseen

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