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The new casino: What's the deal?

resortcasinoIt’s been on everyone’s lips since it was first announced.  A multi-million dollar casino and entertainment complex in the heart of Hilton Head Lakes, right on the road to the island. Funded by local developers and the United Keetowah Band Indian tribe out of Oklahama and rich in promises of explosive tourism gains, tax revenue and a new lease on life for the I-95 corridor. To Jasper County and Hardeeville, towns that have reached out for economic development and seen their hopes dashed, it represents a near-total transformation.

But what does it represent to Hilton Head and Bluffton?

 

 

The numbers behind this new casino are staggering. 3,850 new jobs in the Lowcountry. $20,300,000 in Lowcountry sales tax impact. $190 million in indirect and induced business output in the Lowcountry.

For jobs-stretched Jasper County, which has watched as jobs come tantalizingly close—the Sembler Company’s Okatie Crossing project and the proposed Jasper Port—only to see opportunity snatched away by politics, it’s one more chance for a seat at the table.

 

And in this case, the cards are stacked in Jasper County’s favor. Rather than rely on traditional tax incentives, the developers behind the proposed casino are actually offering to pay more in taxes than they normally would.

“The investors of the Hardeeville Entertainment Resort are not asking for one dime either local or state. In my three decades in South Carolina politics. I’ve never known a company to do that.,” said Bob McAlister, part of the project’s development team. McAlister speaks from experience – he was Gov. Carroll Campbell’s chief of staff during the state’s courtship of BMW.

But despite the obvious economic boom it could bring to the area, some officials locally have expressed concerns, particularly as to the way a casino would interact with the Hilton Head brand already established.

“I do have a concern about the use of the Hilton Head name at that development, and the marketing for the development and the casino becoming associated with the Hilton Head brand,” said Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin. “I haven’t got enough information or expertise to think through what the effects would be and whether they’d be good or bad.”

Simply put, said Laughlin, casino gambling is something not previously associated with Hilton Head, however he stressed that he’s a big believer in regional economic development and says officials on the island and in Bluffton should “try as best we can to cooperate with efforts in the region to get economic development moving.”

McAlister, however, sees the casino as a way to strengthen Hilton Head’s brand.

“The two are not mutually exclusive. The users of this casino will be people like you and me,” he said. “They may want to go to the casino, but guess what? Who would go to a resort three miles off the interstate without going to the beach?

“The other thing that the investors, should they be successful in getting the casino and resort, would be more than happy to help Hilton Head and other chambers. These are South Carolinians. These guys have been in that community for five years. It’s not like an unknown is parachuting into Hardeeville.”

Ryan Baggott, a hospitality student at USCB, concurs.

“To me, you bring something here that will draw someone in during these cold months, they’re going to check out Hilton Head. Of course they’re going to go to Coligny. Obviously, you’re going to have the most during summer, but if you can bring them in, they may not get in the water, but they’ll experience Hilton Head the way we do. They’ll explore Bluffton, they’ll explore Beaufort.”

Baggott, along with several classmates, started the group Let Us Work. Comprised of hospitality majors and other students hoping for the economic boom the resort would bring, Let Us Work has acted on a grassroots level to bring the casino to Hardeeville.

Another concern voiced by several citizens has been the effects a casino might have on quality of life in terms of bringing in a criminal element.

However, statistics surprisingly bear out that when a casino opens up in a new community, crime rates barely shift.

In a report to the Department of Justice on casino gambling, Dr. Grant Stitt of the University of Nevada wrote, “Few statistically significant changes are found in pre and post casino periods. Analyzing the traditional crime rate measure based on resident population, data for burglary and larceny are found to be significant at the .10 level and suggest that there was a decline in burglary and an increase in larceny.”

Of course, all the statistics,  grassroots efforts and official objections and developer assurances in the world don’t mean anything unless the casino can clear some hurdles.

The first, and loftiest, is Gov. Nikki Haley. Under federal law, any new casino must receive gubernatorial approval in the form of a compact. And that may be where the plan flops, as Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement, “The governor has no intention of taking any action that would enable casino gambling. Gov. Haley desperately wants to bring jobs to South Carolina. She works every single day to recruit new jobs, expand existing companies and put South Carolinians back to work. However, she believes South Carolina does not have to settle and that there is a better way.”

However, every gambler knows that every flop is followed by a turn.

“If she wants to be a good Gov and listen to the people, she will say yes… If she came down here, she’d quickly change her mind. I don’t think she’s seen all the facts,” said Baggott.

It’s a gamble, either way. There’s no denying that a resort and casino of this magnitude would be the lifeline Jasper County has needed for more than a decade. But there’s also no denying that, for better or worse, this resort would have a major impact on the way our tourism-dependent community is seen by travelers.

“I don’t want to run off half cocked without having all the information,” said Laughlin. “I think we need to pay attention and see.”