Atlanta Motor Speedway among those pitching gambling to lawmakers

By: - October 16, 2019 8:50 am

Owners of Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton are pitching the race track facility to state lawmakers as a potential gambling venue that would expand into a casino complex. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Casino promoters and Georgia business boosters pushing the state to expand legalized gambling — including the Atlanta Motor Speedway president — lined up in a meeting room across from the Capitol Tuesday to sell state lawmakers on plans to allow new games of chance inside state borders.

The Hampton venue that’s hosted NASCAR races and other events since 1960 makes for “a natural location” to build a new entertainment complex that includes casino gaming, said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway president. Clark was one of several speakers at a half-day House study committee hearing Tuesday held to assess gambling’s economic potential in Georgia. Track owners hope to use a casino to create a “major destination resort” that would anchor a $1 billion complex that includes a hotel and convention space, timeshare apartments, shops, restaurants and entertainment, Clark said.

“We want a full-out resort development that will attract people to come and be entertained,” Clark told the committee.

Clark addressed the 15-member House committee on Tuesday as it held the first of three hearings this week to consider creating legislation to allow new industries in Georgia, with casinos, horse racing and sports betting drawing the most attention. Should any of the proposals gain traction, some state lawmakers say they will push to put a constitutional amendment on a future ballot that lets voters decide whether to expand legal gambling in Georgia beyond today’s state-sponsored lottery. A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval from the Georgia General Assembly to make it to the ballot.

Several out-of-state casino operators flew in to provide overviews of casino resort operations in Massachusetts, Iowa and other locations. Anchoring a large entertainment complex with a casino matches the resort concept for the race track, Clark said. He claims such a complex could create up to 5,000 permanent jobs.

Casino gaming would likely bring in the biggest revenues despite accounting for only 10% of the resort’s footprint, he said.

“It’s a small part of the site, but percentage-wise it’s a large part of the revenue,” Clark said. “It’s vital.”

Atlanta Motor Speedway contributed $1,000 since January 2019 to each of the campaigns of state Reps. Ron Stephens, Alan Powell and Brett Harrell, who are the three co-chairs of the House committee considering gambling as a Georgia revenue generator, according to state finance reports. The co-chairs of the state Senate committee also studying gambling, Sens. Brandon Beach and Steve Gooch, also received $1,000 from the race track early this year.

After the meeting, Clark said the donations are not connected to the race track’s interest in building a new resort. The committee chairs were appointed after the January donations and he said they donate to other lawmakers.

“It’s part of doing business,” Clark said. “And look, we get great support from our state and from our region and certainly from our county, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.”

Others interested in bringing a casino to Georgia include Robert Wright, a former Columbus City Council member who helped the MGM National Harbor resort in Maryland get started. Columbus council members back the idea of building a casino along the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama line, Wright said. 

Wright, scheduled to address the House committee on Wednesday, said a casino resort in Columbus would be a boon for the area, creating jobs and real estate developments and drawing tourists from neighboring Alabama.

“We’re getting to be a tourist town,” Wright said by phone Tuesday. “We just hope we can get some legislation passed that will allow some people to vote.”

House Speaker David Ralston named the new committee, called the Special Committee on Economic Growth, in August and tasked it with exploring new industries for Georgia.

The group heard from representatives of Wynn Casino, which runs Encore Boston Harbor. That new Massachusetts casino puts about $775 million a year into the treasuries of local and state governments and is the state’s fifth largest employer.

Horse racing experts made their case to add parimutuel betting to any expansion of legal gambling. The Kentucky state Senate’s majority leader, Damon Thayer, said the equine industries in Kentucky and Indiana are an economic engine for the region. In addition to new revenue from horse tracks, Georgia stands to benefit from boosts in tourism and horse sales with permitted racing operations, Thayer said.

The House study committee is set to continue its hearings Wednesday and Thursday with more casino representatives on the agenda.

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Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.