Aug. 19, 2003 – After waves of controversy and lengthy negotiations, an agreement has been reached between Southland Gaming and the V.I. government for the operation of video lottery terminals in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
The agreement was reached within the last month, and several layers of government have now signed off on the pact, including Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and Attorney General Iver Stridiron.
The contract was sent to Government House over the weekend, Stridiron said. "Property and Procurement signed off on the agreement after an intensive review," he said, "and so did I."
Neither government nor Southland officials were saying just when the agreement was reached, but by the end of this week it is expected that at least six more venues on St. Thomas will be offering customers games of chance on the video machines.
At the start of the year, VLT's were set up at three venues — Bluebeard's Castle Hotel, Caribbean Saloon in Red Hook, and the Old Mill in Contant — which subsequently asked to have them removed. The lawsuits and subsequent settlement put a hold on any further distribution pending the negotiation of a new contract.
A spokesman for Southland on St. Thomas, E.W. Smith, confirmed on Monday that the company has gotten the green light for activation VLT's. "The agreement is in place, and the video lottery terminals are fully in operation," he said.
It has been a long, uphill battle, Smith said, and "we are happy that the law was adopted."
The legalization of video lottery gambling was a dominant topic of acrimonious political debate and public protest in the first three and a half months of this year, after the Senate in its notorious final session last Dec. 23 overrode the governor's third veto of enabling legislation. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull strongly urged the incoming 25th Legislature to repeal the law, as did vocal VLT opponents, mainly on St. Croix, where the VLT's are seen as unwanted competition to casino gaming.
Compounding the consternation, the government and Southland Gaming entered into a secret agreement to settle lawsuits they had filed against each other concerning Southland's right to distribute and operate the machines.
But on April 15, the repeal bill went down to defeat on a 7-7 tie vote, leaving video gaming the law of the land for St. Thomas and St. John. (See "VLT's to remain a fact of St. Thomas-St. John life".)
Four days after the vote, Robert E. Huckabee III, Southland Gaming president, pledged that once the terminals were in full-scale operation, the territory would see economic benefits to the tune of about $15 million a year. (See "VLT debate continues after legislation".)
Huckabee said then that Southland would be spending "about $18 million" to put the VLT system into place and that its operation would mean employment for "several hundred" persons, including "well over 100" that Southland would hire to get its central facility in Havensight operational. "We will have vocational training there and try to hire a majority of local people," he said.
He dismissed criticism that VLT gambling is highly addictive and would be easily accessible to minors, describing video lottery as "the most regulated form of gaming."
Southland initially came into the picture in 1998, when the V.I. Lottery, after requesting proposals, awarded the company an exclusive contract to distribute and operate VLT's in the territory if and when they became legal. It waited in the wings more than four years, through Senate passage and Turnbull's veto of three bills legalizing VLT gambling, then began installing machines after the Legislature overrode the third veto in December.
On Monday, Smith praised the administration for sticking to the law which made the VLT operation legal. Smith, who was brought in by Southland to oversee the agreement negotiations, said the company is planning to scale back its original goal of installing 2,000 machines in nightclubs, the airport, hotels and entertainment centers around the district. He also said that plans to install VLT's at the Clinton E. Phipps Race Track are on hold.
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