Stevenson: Slot machine referendum too soon

Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson reached out to Historic City News Editor Michael Gold this week to explain her concerns and reasons that she opposes the upcoming referendum to allow slot machines to be included in the mix of gaming options at St Johns County’s only pari-mutuel facility — The Best Bet at St. Johns Greyhound Park.

Commissioner Ron Sanchez, a lifelong St Johns County resident, and Stevenson, who grew up in Daytona Beach but has lived in the county for nearly fifteen years, came up on the losing end of a 3-2 split vote Tuesday that will allow the referendum on the November 6, 2012 General Election ballot.

“I have to be sure that voters understand that what they approve today, may look very different from what they get tomorrow,” Stevenson told Historic City News this morning. “Rights vested in slot machine gambling at the pari-mutuel facility on Race Track Road, for example, could be transferred by the owners to other locations.”

Stevenson was referring to interest, on the owner’s part, to move their operation closer to Interstate-95. “What we have evolved to on Race Track Road is not a dog track,” Stevenson said. “Patrons go there, not to watch greyhounds chase an imitation rabbit around a 550-yard track, but to play poker and bet on races that are held elsewhere and piped in via satellite.”

Changes already made at “St Johns Greyhound Park” do make you wonder about the future.

In a press release, Stevenson wrote, “Gambling can be a very lucrative business, especially if market demand is concentrated into a single site. The referendum includes no limit on size. Limiting size in the referendum language itself, either square footage or the number of machines, would be the best protection against a potential unintended consequence.”

At one time, carriage racing, complete with sulky and drivers, was the matinee attraction at what was then known as Bayard Raceway — hence the naming of Race Track Road.

Mary Patton, whose father owned and operated Jacksonville Kennel Club, built the Orange Park Kennel Club and later acquired the failed Bayard Raceway. He refitted it for greyhound racing. Patton was married to Robert Pitocchelli, who, at that time, managed the operations for the family. Pitocchelli would rotate the kennel owners and dog track employees between the three locations in order to keep greyhound racing available in the greater Jacksonville area continuously throughout the year. The other two tracks would remain dark as the featured track ran six nights a week plus a Saturday matinee.

In St Johns County, the St Johns Greyhound Park has become a poker room and the former Jacksonville Kennel Club on McDuff has been closed for renovation — expected to reopen again next month.

You can still stand ringside and actually watch the sleek and powerful greyhounds as they prepare for and run each race — but you have to go to Orange Park Kennel Club to do it. The off track betting can only be observed on closed circuit television at St Johns Greyhound Park, which might open the door, aided by high-stakes poker and slot machines, for Bayard to expand existing facilities or move to the Interstate where they would become the only legal gambling venue along the coast between Georgia and Volusia County.

“Gaming promoters always show people winning money on billboards, in magazine ads and on television — it really looks glamorous, but there is another side,” Stevenson warned. “Gamblers can become addicted; leading to increased depression, criminal activity and even suicide.”

Stevenson expressed concern because she says the county does not have the capacity to regulate slot machine gambling or sufficient social and mental health facilities that would be needed if they did. She was also concerned about predatory lending — pawn shops and title lenders who might locate across the street to catch someone caught in a downward-spiraling losing streak.

Would these unfortunate players turn to burglary and theft to support their compulsions?

The Florida Sheriff’s Association does not support increased gambling in Florida.

The restaurant and attractions associations do not want to see gambling expanded, either.

“We have an enormous investment in our brand for St Johns County,” Stevenson told Historic City News. “St Johns County is a valued place to live and work because it has great schools, low crime and a great natural environment. Our high quality tourism based on culture, romance, beaches, relaxation, history, eco-tourism and agriculture, enhances our quality of life.”

Stevenson said that she believes that the voters will mistake the appearance of the referendum on the ballot to indicate that the issue of slot machines has survived a thorough vetting. She says, “It hasn’t”.

Gambling is regulated by the State of Florida. If the State does not desire expansion, then the County has no assurances that the State would enact and enforce regulations for the industry. The County is not in a position to do so.

“We would be meddling in the legislature’s business if we presumed to approve an ordinance locally to regulate a state regulated business category that is, as of yet, un-approved,” Stevenson said. She did not want to “put the cart in front of the horse”, noting that the county doesn’t like it when the legislature forces them to provide services and regulation in local issues — particularly controversial ones.

Stevenson did comment that she was interested to know what the local sheriff had to say about his opinion of the effects of slot machine gambling and high-stakes poker in pari-mutuel greyhound race tracks. She also said that if the state approved gambling on slot machines, at Internet cafes, or otherwise, it would then become the responsibility of the county to set out guidelines as to proper zoning and permitting of those businesses.

Stevenson told us that she has been to many visioning sessions for St Johns County and for our region and never has she heard someone say, “What we need to strengthen our community and our economy is an expansion of gambling.”

“Today is just, too soon,” Stevenson said. “The issue is not yet ripe for referendum. We’re simply not there yet.”

Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News contributed photograph by Cyndi Stevenson

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