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The Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne organizes the casino resistance
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Mayor Henry’s hopes to have a special referendum on a casino in Fort Wayne were disappointed last June when the bill necessary to set up the referendum did not make it through committee during the extended legislative session in Indianapolis.
So, while there won’t be a special referendum on gaming this November, the issue is hardly over and done with. The Mayor’s office has indicated that it is still interested in pursuing the referendum to gauge public opinion for casino gambling on Fort Wayne.
And opponents of casino gambling in the city are using the downtime afforded by the state legislature to muster their forces and get organized. “We have a reprieve at this point,” says J. Bohn Popp, a spokesperson for an organization called Coalition for A Better Fort Wayne. The group has made casino gambling in Fort Wayne its primary target, and their website CasiNO! (www.saynotocasino.com) lays out their argument against gambling pretty unambiguously.
So far, the group is the closest thing opponents of a casino in Fort Wayne have to an organized entity. Last June, during the extended session, the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne organized a trip to Indianapolis for people to “express their opposition to the proposal of a special gambling referendum.” And in April, the group hosted a discussion with Dr. Earl Grinols at the ACPL. Grinols’ is a former Chief Economist for the council of Economic Advisors, current professor at Baylor, and the author of a widely-cited 2004 book on the social and economic impact of gambling in a community called Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits.
That impact, you might guess, is not good. You can find details of Dr. Grinols’ study on the CasiNO! website, but the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne is using it as the cornerstone of their campaign to educate the public of the potential cost of a casino in Fort Wayne.
“We thought it (casino gambling) was just a real negative for our city,” Popp says. “It would hurt business and have huge social cost. We are an All American City, and why does Fort Wayne, an All-American City, want to take a step back and go into that area of a regressive tax? We’ve found a lot of statistics that show that casinos prey on gambling addicts. I think 60% of them play slots, so it seems innocent, but it creates so many social costs…”
The economic costs of gambling — not just to individuals but the area business — is also a concern of the group. “There are a lot of bells and whistles for the casino itself, but the area around it is effected,” Popp explains. “It hurts retail and merchandising businesses. The business model of the casino, they have very cheap food, they draw people in, and these people don’t go to restaurants in the area, they don’t shop.”
“So, on one hand, you can make an argument for the casino, you can say it creates more jobs — you have to hire people to build the casino, you have to hire people to work there, and so now you’ve got this thriving business. But (Grinols’) statistics show that it does not create wealth in that community. It’s not like a business that builds and then has suppliers that do well if it does well, and expands and does other things to create more jobs and more wealth. We don’t feel it has any equivalency to a manufacturing or a service or a high-tech business, and we feel that that is the kind of thing that will help this community a lot more.”
Popp says the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne knows of local government officials who are against a casino and hopes to work with them sometime in the future. As for Mayor Henry, Popp says he was part of a group who met with the mayor to voice their opposition. When he tells the story, he seems genuinely puzzled by what he heard at the meeting. “God bless the Mayor, but… I went in with some ministers and pastors. I was representing the business side, I guess. (Mayor Henry) said ‘I think that if this goes through, what we’re going to do is immediately build a counseling center.’ I just… That argument just doesn’t hold water for me, that you want to build something that you say is good for the community, but immediately you have to build something to counter the problem?”
Popp says that he doubts we’ll see a special referendum anytime in the near future. In the meantime, the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne wants to concentrate on getting their voice heard and educating the public. “We’re going to try to build resources that allow us to communicate through a grass roots organization, and educate the public so they understand the potential downfall of what we feel a casino will have on the community.”
They also want to start to build a “war chest” for the battle that, sooner or later, is going to happen over this issue. To be fair, Popp shies away from words like “campaign,” but at the same time, he’s well aware that a political campaign is exactly what a referendum is. And resources are at the heart of every political campaign. “Casinos bring in millions and millions of dollars,” Popp says. “They can spend $8 – $10 million on a license. They can spend half-million or a million on a campaign.”
Popp feels the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne’s trip to Indianapolis last June was misrepresented, and the group was made to look like they were “against democracy.” He makes it clear that, if there is going to be a referendum, the Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne would like to see it happen during a regular election year. “I do think a special referendum is a really bad idea, because it’s either paid for by the casinos — a real conflict of interest — or it’s paid for by the tax payers,” he says. If you hold the referendum during an election, the voting mechanisms and infrastructure are already in place.
“We want to make sure our voices are heard at the state level, and start building a campaign so that the community understands the full package,” Popp says. “When you start throwing out things like ‘a casino will bring in millions of dollars and thousands of jobs,’ it sounds positive, but there’s another side to the story, and we want to make sure everybody knows that.”