Some Georgia developers are proposing casino resorts as a way to capture and retain travelers on their way to somewhere else.
Real estate developer Rick Lackey is the originator of a plan that would authorize three casinos in the Peach State. He says that Georgia, while a destination for many, is also “a drive-through state for people (heading to) the Midwest and mid-Atlantic.”
“A lot of people come to Atlanta because it’s the capital of the southeast and the biggest city,” Lackey told GGB News. “A lot of people come here for shopping trips, for our pro sports teams, for the culture we offer. But we don’t have casinos in Georgia, and it’s a big state.”
In other words, according to Lackey, it’s a big untapped market, one of the biggest in the United States, with no competition nearby. State Rep. Ron Stephens agrees. As chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism committee, Stephens has introduced House Resolution 30, which calls for a statewide referendum to authorize a “limited number” of casino resorts. The Georgia legislature first must approve a constitutional amendment with two-thirds of lawmakers passing it.
In a statement, Stephens declared, “There has been a groundswell of support for legalized gaming throughout the state. Georgians support the economic opportunities presented by casino resorts, especially jobs and revenue that they would bring to local communities.”
Some gaming tax revenues would go to the HOPE Scholarship, an educational program now funded entirely by revenue from the Georgia Lottery. Stephens noted that lottery ticket sales aren’t keeping up with the financial demands of the program, which is now about $300 million short.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is “not a big fan” of legal gaming. A referendum would be a way to sidestep his opposition, because it doesn’t require his signature and would be presented directly to the voters. In several polls, Georgians have said they support the casino plan. As bill co-sponsor Calvin Smyre said last week, “For too long, we’ve allowed this to linger. It’s time to fish or cut bait.”
Lackey is an Atlanta commercial real estate executive and developer of the Battery, home of the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park. “I’m really more a broker than anything else,” he told GGB News. “I’m a commercial real estate deal maker and entrepreneur, but I’m also a deal guy.”
The casino idea isn’t new, he said. “For the past five years, Georgia has been contemplating it. There have been several legislative hearings. A number of very significant leaders of the state in the Senate and House are very interested. They’ve proposed legislation. The process has continued to mature.”
And the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated that dynamic. “It’s been a long time since Georgia’s had high unemployment,” Lackey said. “Georgia attracts companies, and it’s always had increasing tax revenue, jobs and population. ” The pandemic put a damper on that.
The industry is interested too, Lackey said. “All the big guys have had lobbyists in the state for years”—the “big guys” being Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts, Golden Nugget, Hard Rock, Penn National, Las Vegas Sands and Boyd Gaming.
“I’ve been told by casinos operators what their site criteria are: 100 acres or more, on a freeway, on an exit ramp and preferably near a state line, if not metropolitan Atlanta,” Lackey said. “I’ve assembled 5,000 acres around the state.” He’s also engaged “world-class architects” to develop site plans.
One possible location is Hartwell in northeastern Georgia, on the border with South Carolina. “It’s on I-85, and 37 million people are within a five-hour drive,” said Lackey. “That site plan shows three hotels and casinos, a golf course, numerous amenities. I wanted to show multiple hotels and casinos on a site.”
Another location is in Columbus, along the Chattahoochee River on the Georgia-Alabama line. “I wanted to show how you could do one in a small city,” Lackey said. A third potential site, Midway, is about 30 miles south of Savannah. But one of the best sites, according to Lackey, is at the Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS), whose owners are also enthusiastic.
The first order of business, Speedway President Ed Clark told GGB News,
“is to make it possible to happen. We need to get this constitutional amendment passed in the legislature, then put on the ballot. We’ve been working on this now for about three years, to have a casino, a full-on resort destination, a vacation spot with amusements, activities, convention space, retail and hotel.”
AMS is “an internationally-recognized facility with a lot of infrastructure already in place, and a significant number of people who attend, which would be a tremendous base,” Clark said. “Besides our core business, casino would bring us additional events and would be a win-win for both scenarios.”
Though Clark is semi-retired, he’s happy to work on the casino project. “Our state has nothing in the way of casino-type betting, and a lot of [illegal] sports betting,” he said. “This would allow the state to capture some of that revenue. The real big revenue, as we see it, would come from the operation of these first-class resorts that would attract people who are either here or on their way to Florida and Mississippi. We feel that having quality facilities would allow us to compete with those venues and keep a significant portion of the money in our state.”
Last fall, Georgia House members held hearings throughout the state to gauge public interest. One held at the speedway “was standing-room-only,” Clark said. “Overwhelmingly, people in our region are interested in the job prospects.
“About 70 percent of the people in Henry County drive out of town to work each day,” said Clark. “They’d like competitive jobs that would let them work closer to home and have more hours with their families. That was the number one interest.”
AMS already has a relationship with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which runs Foxwoods Resorts Casino in Connecticut. “We have renderings we developed with them,” Clark said. A rendering shows a three-level golf driving range, an indoor/outdoor waterpark, a 330,00-square-foot theme park, 10 theater cinema complex, a family entertainment center with an e-sports arena, and a night club. The complex would feature an 11,000-seat concert hall, 10 restaurants, and a 300,000-square-foot premium outlet mall.
The casino resort would have 700 hotel rooms, an 85,000-square-foot gaming floor, 75,000-square-feet of convention space and a 400-unit timeshare.
What he doesn’t envision is a slot parlor. “We’re talking about first-class resorts with golf and other amenities that attract people for a great vacation,” Clark said. “The only discussion I’ve heard about a low-end slot facility is that nobody wants one. The concept we have at the speedway is about $1 billion.”
Lackey agrees. He proposes “really mixed-use developments, each with a hotel and casino, some with golf courses, and numerous amenities” that would capture all those people traveling through Georgia, many on their way to Disney World.
“People load up the family van and drive down I-95 from the northeast, I-85 from the mid-Atlantic region and I-75 from the Midwest. All those roads lead through Georgia, which is a very big state.” Lackey said. “A lot of people come through Atlanta, fill up with gas and get a Chick-Fil-A and keep driving to Florida. Georgia would like to capture these people.“
But before that can happen, Clark said, “We need to get a constitutional amendment done.”