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Senate Launches Into Casino Debate

The Senate Friday kicked off what is likely to be a lengthy and contentious debate on allowing hotel/casino development in the St. Thomas/St. John District as well as a stand-alone casino in Christiansted, St. Croix.

At the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas, all seven senators on the Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee agreed to delay a vote on both bills until they get an airing on St. Croix. No date was set for the follow-up meeting.

After spending all day and part of the early evening discussing the casino bills, the committee switched gears and approved a bill strengthening the territory’s film industry. It will next air at the Rules Committee.

In discussing the proposal for a Christiansted casino sponsored by Sen. Ronald Russell, St. Croix attorney Donovan Hamm disclosed that the lenders for the proposed Robin Bay hotel/casino development on St. Croix are foreclosing on the property.

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“Oh no,” gasped Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, who chaired the meeting.

Hamm, who said he was the attorney for the unnamed lender, provided no other details other than to say the paperwork had been filed.

The Christiansted casino was viewed as the centerpiece of a revitalized town by its proponents. They include developers, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, business owners, and others.

“The renewal must be comprehensive and coordinated,” Hamm said.

He said it would include the casino, a multi-level parking garage, a cultural arts center, lights and security cameras, and an upgrade to existing hotels and businesses.

Hamm and St. Croix real estate developer Duane Bobeck have joined forces to spearhead the development and come up with the promised $20 million investment. In exchange, they would get a tax and license benefits package from the government.

As the meeting progressed, several people painted a grim picture of Christiansted’s plight.

“Downtown Christiansted is dead and dying. Residents and visitors alike are fearful for their safety after dark,” Stuart Logan, president of the St. Croix Chamber, said.

Assistant Tourism Commissioner Brad Nugent wasn’t enthused about the Christiansted casino proposal.

“It would not bring any new hotel development,” he said.

Casino Control Commission member Violet Anne Golden agreed, noting that the 1995 legislation that approved casinos for St. Croix linked it to hotel development.

The St. Thomas/St. John casino bill as it was originally written called for a casino at Yacht Haven, but an amendment is anticipated that will allow seven casinos on St. Thomas and two on St. John.

Currently, only St. Croix has one casino, the Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino. Voters agreed back in the 1990s that only St. Croix should have casinos to improve the island’s economic picture. Although the original legislation passed in 1995 allows for six casinos on St. Croix, only the Divi was built. Others are on the drawing board.

“What we hoped for in 1995 is nowhere there now,” Golden said.

The pending amendment on the St. Thomas/St. John casino bill would give 40 percent of the revenues to the V.I. Water and Power Authority to help it float bonds so it can buy new equipment and 40 percent to the Government Employees Retirement System to assist with its unfunded liability. Nine percent of the revenues would go to the general fund, 5 percent to the Education Initiative Fund, 5 percent to the Casino Control Commission for operating expenses, and 1 percent to gambling addiction and education programs.

The bill currently before the Senate was sponsored by Sen. Carlton Dowe, who spoke at length about his expectation that St. Thomas/St. John casinos would improve the entire territory’s economic picture.

Many testifiers noted that there is already gambling in the St. Thomas/St. John District thanks to the presence of Video Lottery Terminals across both islands. Additionally, the Puerto Rican lottery, poker “establishments,” Santo Domingo poker, and Black Jack are not regulated but played openly, Dowe and others said.

Several people indicated they feared that allowing casinos in the St. Thomas/St. John District would deter investments into pending St. Croix casinos and impact business at the Divi Casino.

Golden said since Racino gambling began on at the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix in August, Divi casino revenues dropped 20 percent.

Gary Anders, a consultant for the V.I. Lottery, questioned figures in the Legislature’s Post Audit Report that seemed to indicate gambling would be good for St. Thomas/St. John.

“There are egregious assertions using outdated information in the Post Auditor’s report,” Anders said.

His contention was supported by a letter read into the record from University of the Virgin Islands economics professor Simon Jones-Hendrickson.

“There is a lack of understanding of the economic quagmire the world is now in,” Jones-Hendrickson wrote. He put numbers to what others suggested by writing that 80 to 90 percent of the Divi Casino traffic came from locals.

“Apostle” Alger B. Warren, who represented an unnamed group of churches, opposed the idea.

“Gambling is not a solution to difficult economic times,” he said, predicting that social ills are sure to follow.

All seven committee members were at the meeting when attendance was taken but by the time the vote was taken on the film bill, Sens. Alicia “Chuckie” Hansen, Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Janette Millin Young were gone. Sens. Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Terrence “Positive” Nelson and Malone voted yes.

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