Friday, March 20, 2009

No quick fix to Galveston's woes

For those of you who don't know, the island of Galveston was hit extremely hard when Hurricane Ike came ashore last September. Reminders of the storm are still everywhere on the island. For months boats were littered along the interstate and the causeway bridge. You can still drive around and see businesses and houses that were destroyed by the storm surge.

Much like New Orleans, a significant portion of Galveston's pre-Ike population has not returned. Also, like New Orleans, Galveston was not a very affluent city before the storm. From the turn of the 20th century up through the 1950's, Galveston was a wild, almost-anything goes town -- the Gulf Coast's equivalent of Atlantic City. Local clubs such as the Balinese Room were legendary for their music, celebrity clientele and gambling.

The Balinese Room was built on a pier out in the Gulf of Mexico. Whenever the Texas Rangers would come a-calling, the warning would come from a look-out running down the pier. The staff and patrons conducted regular fire drills in preparation for police raids. Alas, the Balinese Room was destroyed by Hurricane Ike and is now but a memory.

Galveston was a thriving port city up until the Port of Houston opened. Once the ship channel was carved through Galveston Bay, traffic to the Port of Galveston dried up -- and so did the island's prosperity.

There is now a group of residents who want to "bring Galveston back" by establishing casino gambling on the island. Much like the architects of the "New" Boardwalk in Atlantic City, gambling proponents believe casinos are the panacea to the island's woes. The champions of casino gambling, including Tillman Fertitta, see the scores of cars with Texas plates at casinos in Lake Charles, Shreveport and Bossier City, Louisiana and fantasize about that money staying in Texas.

Now, before I go any further, y'all should know that I love to play poker and blackjack as much as the next guy. I would also like to see our money stay in Texas. But, those who think casino gambling will save Galveston are either delusional or are selling snake oil.

Gambling did not save Atlantic City. Hike one block off the boardwalk and you're in the ghetto. Abandoned buildings and crack houses stand on the streets that inspired the Monopoly board game. The casinos are owned by out-of-state corporations and the vast number of casino employees come from other parts of the state (parking in vast parking lots along the turnpike). Very little money from the gilded casinos finds its way into the coffers of Atlantic City.

The impact of the casinos in Louisiana has been more positive, however, as Galveston's gambling proponents would point out. But, Shreveport, Bossier City and Lake Charles were not in serious decline when legalized gambling came to town. The Louisiana cities also had better infrastructure and a more qualified workforce than Galveston has.

Those cities also had something else that Galveston lacks, room for growth. If you've ever taken 61st Street to Seawall you know that Galveston would have a hard time accomodating much more traffic. Additionally, where would the gamblers park? Space is at a premium on the island, particularly along the seawall.

And we mustn't forget that with inexpensive air fare and a glut of hotel space in Las Vegas, a good time can be had out in the desert for a relative pittance - an option that wasn't available to the masses during Galveston's heyday.

Now I don't know what the answer is for Galveston, but I do know that casino gambling will not solve the island's problems. Like everything else in life, there are no shortcuts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Casino's in Las Vegas are suffering from economic woes as well as anywhere else. Mesquite, NV has closed most of it's major casinos and building new homes have been stopped midway through construction. Dealers that make their living off tips are losing their homes and are leaving Nevada for greener pastures. I know. I go there to visit family. Legalized gambling and casino's are not the panacea everyone seem to think. If there isn't a lot of money to spend, most people are not going to spend it in a casino.