City of Gretna rolls dice for a lucrative miracle in gambling venture
April 02, 2012
By Van Wilson
Your Capital Bureau
Imagine driving west on Interstate 10. Suddenly you’re face-to-face with two 17-story spires of glass and steel, awash with light and sparkling with excitement.
You feel compelled to get off at the next exit and explore. You know you haven’t reached Pensacola yet, and Tallahassee is behind you, so what is this new tourist mecca? It’s the tiny town of Gretna; at least that’s what city officials predict.
Gretna, a North Florida agricultural city of population 1,600 or so, 30 miles north of Tallahassee, has entered into an agreement to allow a company called Wind Creek Entertainment to construct a casino near the intersection of I-10 and State Road 12.
The first phase of Creek Entertainment Gretna, the poker room, opened last December.
“It’s already paid out over a million dollars in prizes,” said Gretna Mayor Clarence Jackson. “They’ve already hosted poker tournaments and the crowds keep getting better and better.”
The casino also contains a room for slot machines. The large room sits empty now because state legislators are challenging the county’s authority to authorize use of the machines, which would provide the casino’s largest revenue.
Jackson said a loophole in the law, designed to limit use of the machines to Seminole tribes, actually allowed Florida counties the authority to authorize the machines when approved by referendum.
Gadsden County residents passed such a referendum last December. State legislators have since closed the loophole and argued that Gadsden’s referendum violates the spirit of the law. Though they say they are sure the referendum will be challenged in court, Jackson and Jefferson say they are confident the referendum will be upheld.
Jackson said the casinos and all the peripheral business that will spring up in support of the new industry represent a golden opportunity for economic development in Gretna. The small city has annexed all the land that the new development will sit on, so its tax rolls will increase, providing more revenue for the cash-starved municipality.
Another big plus, jobs. “They’re going to hire about 1,400 people,” Jackson said about the casinos and two 17-story hotels that are planned.
He said that retail shopping spaces, at least two restaurants and other businesses are also planned. “Gretna’s population is just over 1,600 people, so between the casinos, the hotels and the other support business that will come, it’s going to come to a point where if you live in Gretna and you don’t have a job, it’s because you don’t want one.” Jackson said more than 900 people showed up to apply for jobs when the casino opened in December.
Speaking to a group of Florida A&M University journalism students recently, Jackson and Gretna City Manager Antonio Jefferson laid out a compelling case for the rural panhandle town’s plans. Gretna is in Gadsden County, Florida’s only majority African-American county and one of the state’s poorest.
“We know that about $300 million in gaming money leaves the state of Florida every year,” Jefferson said.
He added that with 22 million cars passing that exchange every year, the city is confident its plans will work out.
In addition to the casinos, a state-of-the-art barrel racing facility is under construction, which according to Jefferson, will be America’s first to facilitate barrel racing as a sport and not as a show event. The owners who come and the horses that race will bring more business with needs for supplies and veterinarian services.
A huge sports complex is also planned which will have several softball, football and soccer fields. The hope is that the facility will attract recreational and little league tournaments and visitors. Additionally, a 7,000-9,000-seat facility for events and concerts is planned to also attract visitors to the area.
Jackson says Gretna’s plans are based on similar situations in Atmore, Ala., and Tunica, Miss., where Wind Creek Entertainment constructed and is successfully operating gaming facilities. Atmore is a small rural town situated off I-65 just north of Mobile, Ala., Tunica is similarly a small town just off I-69 in Mississippi.
Jefferson says the arrangement has transformed both towns into economically successful areas. In fact, published reports in Alabama say that Wind Creek Entertainment has donated $3 million to Atmore’s schools in the last two years. Welcome news to a small town with an anemic tax base.
“Is this a dream?” Jackson asks. “No. It’s not a dream for us. It’s been a dream. Now we’re making it a reality.”
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