Snake eyes! Walker County commissioner looking at gambling option

Snake eyes! Walker County commissioner looking at gambling option

October 4th, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

POLL: Does Walker County need a casino?

Bebe Heiskell wants to sit down at the craps table, roll those dice and change Walker County's fortunes.

The Walker County commissioner said during her Sept. 23 appearance on local cable-access television she thinks the county is a fine location for a gambling site, assuming casinos become legal in Georgia. State lawmakers are considering the question before next year's legislative session.

Heiskell told a caller on TV that a casino would generate money for her cash-strapped government.

"I'd rather it go in Walker County, and I hope that doesn't make me a hypocrite Christian," she said. "But they're going to go somewhere and do it. And we have to have some way — besides property tax — to raise money around here."

In the last two years, the county's millage rate has risen 85 percent, from 4.705 in 2013 to 8.725. Most recently, the county raised property taxes by 1 mill when its development authority issued a $15.3 million bond. Two-thirds of that money went toward paying off a temporary loan that had been used to pay off a 2013 loan that Heiskell guaranteed on behalf of Hutcheson Medical Center.

On Sept. 14-15, a study committee of state lawmakers gathered to discuss whether Georgia should introduce six casinos. The tax revenue from gambling would help fund pre-kindergarten programs and HOPE scholarships for college students.

Under the proposed plan, legislators would divide the casinos among five regions. The first region occupies northern Georgia and runs as far south as Jefferson County. That region includes the Atlanta metropolitan area and its 5.5 million residents. Walker County has 68,000 residents.

Members of Marquette Advisors, a group of hospitality and gambling consultants, recommend putting two casinos in Atlanta and planting the other four in the southern half of the state. The consultants told lawmakers the state is missing out on a potential $346 million right now as residents travel to casinos in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell is interested in bringing a casino to town, if the law in Georgia changes.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell is interested in...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

The consultants said casinos in Georgia would generate $200 million in sales tax and another $288 million in gambling tax. MGM Resorts International, which owns casinos across the country, hired Marquette Advisors to provide the analysis.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who is on the study committee, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. State Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, is not on the committee but said several state lawmakers have asked him for his opinion.

During the 2012 primary elections, 53 percent of Walker County Republicans answered "no" to a nonbinding question about whether they would want casinos in Georgia, even if tax revenue from the gambling went toward education programs.

"I would have to take that into consideration," Tarvin said. "I personally don't have any problem with gambling."

On TV, Heiskell said that while local residents may oppose putting a casino in Walker County, many of them travel out of state to play cards and roll dice.

Added County Coordinator David Ashburn: "[A local casino] doesn't encourage gambling. You do it right there instead of driving. It makes it available. They're doing it online every day."

At first, Heiskell proposed putting the casino in Mountain Cove Farms, the 300 acres of county-owned property she bought for about $2.5 million in 2008. But on Thursday, she backed off from that suggestion.

"The cove is a historic place," she said. "That wasn't my choice. I don't know if it would mess up the historic quality on it. I don't think the people who live out there would like it."

She added that she didn't follow the study committee's meetings last month on the issue. She simply believes gambling could be the jackpot she needs.

"I don't know if we'll have the opportunity," she said. "I don't know any of the details on it. It's just rumor right now. I don't know."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.


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