The Gospel According to Jerry

I have been a gambler ever since I was old enough to pitch pennies against a wall. I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated gambler, and I have enjoyed many a game of chance over the years, but believe me, I never considered giving up my day job.

Why don’t Asheville and Buncombe County go to our legislative delegation and get permission to put a video-poker casino in the newly constructed Civic Center?

I have been truly amazed by the acceptance of the proliferation of gambling in our area, considering the high percentage of fundamentalist religious people who used to consider it a major sin to sneak into the bingo game at the Catholic Church or the Jewish Community Center.

I was surprised by polls showing that more than 60 percent of North Carolinians support a statewide lottery. I personally have always been opposed to the lottery, as I think it is a tax on poor people. It is for people who can’t do the math and haven’t figured out that you have about as much chance of winning the lottery whether you buy a ticket or not. It is hard for me to believe that people were lining up at 6 a.m. to buy Powerball tickets.

Then I began to think about gambling in the community, and I realized it was nothing new — just that, in the past, it had been illegal.

I certainly remember places that sold chances on the numbers game, the bollito, tipboards and the butter-and-eggs. (The winning ticket was determined by the end numbers posted in the morning paper for the butter and egg futures on the commodity exchange.)

We had lots of illegal poker houses here. I remember sitting in a game more than once where one of our former high sheriffs was a player.

One of the most important political meeting places in the community was in the area’s biggest bookie establishment. Lunch was served there on a regular basis, and many significant political deals were transacted among the elected, appointed and unelected leaders of our community. Many were pillars of the very churches whose pastors railed against gambling on a regular basis.

During the ’40s and early ’50s, slot machines were operated in many beer joints down on Riverside Drive and on Merrimon Avenue while law enforcement looked the other way.

Recently I have been reading about the legal video-poker machines in North Carolina. Apparently these machines are acceptable because they are considered games of skill. It seems that this is a much bigger business than most of us realize — at least, I haven’t seen many of them. Maybe it is because I don’t hang out in the same kinds of joints I frequented when I was younger.

The General Assembly has been asked to outlaw the video machines because of the smarmy politics that have surrounded their existence and because of the cheating and chicanery of many video-poker operators. this has made it difficult for county sheriffs to enforce the rules.

Speaker of the House Jim Black, who has supported both the lottery and video-poker machines over the years, has said that if the machines are outlawed, thousands of people will be out of work.

So, OK, where am I going with this? Gospel Jerry has had an epiphany. Now wait till you hear me out before you color my picture crazy.

Why don’t Asheville and Buncombe County go to our legislative delegation and get permission to put a video-poker casino in the newly constructed Civic Center — with all the revenue dedicated to the Civic Center’s construction and operations? It seems to me that since the Legislature had no real moral problem with allowing the private sector to operate these machines, it should be delighted to let the state’s municipalities go into this business — much the way our ABC stores are run.

There would, of course, have to be a tight set of rules about how and where these casinos could be located and strict regulations as to how the revenues could be used. It might have to go to a local-option vote — again, much like the ABC-store sales.

The simplest way to handle this would be to ask several reputable, professional casino operators — such as Harrah’s, MGM or International Game Technology — to bid on providing the equipment and operating the casino. This would require no investment or risk to the city, and the Civic Center would get a percentage of the take. I am sure that any or all of them would be delighted to come in and give the city a projection of expected revenue to make sure it would be viable.

The modern video-poker and slot machines are a far cry from the old clunkers that take and dispense coins that people carry around in little buckets. They offer multiple games to suit the individual’s taste, reducing the number of machines required for maximum action.

These machines are completely computer-driven. They accept paper money only and cash out with a ticket, which can be used to play another game or inserted in a cash-and-bill changer that will cash the ticket.

The whole system is designed to be completely transparent. Each machine can be tracked on a real-time basis, and the information could be available at City Hall, in the newspaper or on the Web, if the city were inclined to give it out.

I am told that the owner of one of the new casinos in Las Vegas can get on his cell phone and determine the action of any machine in his operation.

It would be important that the Legislature allow these machines to offer full Vegas payouts in order to generate the volume necessary to the project.

Let’s look at the other advantages. First, we would be competing with the illegal gambling in the area, which would probably be significantly reduced. We would attract many online gamblers, who are presently wagering millions. Most would be much happier to trust and enjoy real machine play, rather than trusting the integrity of some offshore, Third World company. Some of the people who now rush through Asheville to get to Harrah’s in Cherokee might well spend an extra day or two here, which would be a great boon to our tourism industry. Just think how much it would boost downtown restaurants, entertainment and shopping.

Most importantly, it would generate millions of dollars to help fund the construction and operation of the Civic Center and perhaps a new parking deck.

Carrying the idea a step further, we could put a casino car on the train from Asheville to Raleigh. It could look much like the casinos on cruise ships, with a bar and music. This could go a long way toward financing the passenger rail service that we desperately need.

I would hope that our elected officials and the public would not dismiss this idea out of hand. If the process were designed correctly, it could be a great thing not only for our community, but for the state as well.

It’s time to start thinking inside the box — the video box.

[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.]

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