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The people of West Kentucky have many reasons to be grateful as we enter Thanksgiving week but news of the $150 million casino expansion project in Oak Grove is not one of them. The hype of Big Gambling's economic feast welcoming everyone to join will likely result in a few crumbs left under the table for those fooled by the ever-so-elusive riches gambling always promises.
Last Friday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved Churchill Down's and Keenland's partnership to build a Standardbred horse track, 125-room hotel, restaurants, huge amphitheater and stage, equestrian center, event center, and casino which will house up to 1500 instant racing machines. Churchill plans to have 12 days of horse racing while the slots will likely operate 365 days a year making it clear it's not really about horses and higher purses as much as its about enticing Fort Campbell soldiers and Nashvillians less than an hour's drive away.
The winners will be the horse industry, the 800 construction workers who'll land jobs, the 400 full and part time workers who'll run the show and Christian County and Oak Grove governments who'll collect more tax receipts from this new revenue source. However, just like Metropolis and Atlantic City, the mirage of gambling's promise eventually wears off leaving too many community members broken and an economy unstable.
The losers will be those prone to addiction. The family whose breadwinner gambled away the week's grocery money. The businesses who've been embezzled by a wayward employee. Adventure-seeking-soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell looking for an evening of entertainment and ending up with a pocket full of nothing. And the law enforcement and judicial system burdened with cases related to gambling addiction.
Often overlooked is that casino success depends largely on the idea of a monopoly where a single entity is permitted to do business while shutting out any competition. Kentucky Downs prospective co-owner Ron Winchell admitted as much when he opposed the expansion which is only 60 miles from Franklin because "it could lead to pricing competition." With this new monopoly WKY Development LLC's restaurants and hotel will have a huge advantage over existing businesses. Oak Grove hotels like the Candlewood Suites, Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn won't have an added casino to attract travelers. Nor will Mikado or Luigi's restaurants be able to comp their guests free meals for playing.
Prosperity shouldn't be a zero-sum game that only creates a few big winners at the expense of the many. By their very nature, casinos create losers. Many losers. How else do they pay for $150 million expansions like the one in Oak Grove?
The science tells us that slots are like a drug that play on brain chemistry. There's the adrenaline rush of the spinning wheel while the player hopes for three of a kind. Any kind. Then there's the ringing bell that signals a win. In defeat, Lady Luck's persistent voice whispers in the back of the player's mind "try once more, you'll hit the jackpot." To ease the sting of loss there will be free drinks and hotel and meal comps, at least for the best patrons.
The pro-gambling crowd contends that it's just entertainment and a certain percentage of the population will develop an addiction to anything. And isn't it about time that Kentucky reaps gambling revenue lost to surrounding states with casinos? Each point deserves a response but entertainment that leads to addiction resulting in pain and loss for some is entertainment that should be questioned.
Some see casinos as fun and exciting, a diversion from drudgery. But their premise is to risk resources for a pie-in-the-sky promise. Gambling is largely fueled by greed and its mainstay is envy. Undermined are virtues absolutely necessary for success and health: thrift, industriousness, savings and delayed gratification. In the end, the Golden Rule has been inverted to "he who has the gold rules."
As you sit down around the dinner table with your family this Thanksgiving imagine what a casino would do to your community. Ask yourself if it will bring greater love for your neighbor, encourage personal responsibility, build up goodwill and better harmony—those priceless things we long for. If it doesn't, don't settle for the crumbs that it will leave behind.
This column appeared in the November 21, 2018 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.