No Slots for DC

I guess since I am technically not a DC resident I should just butt out of this issue. But a proposal to put a slot machine emporium in the District of Columbia in Northeast Washington along New York Avenue really upset me.

The suggestion comes from Pedro Alfonso, CEO of Dynamic Concepts. This is the same wonderful guy who along with his partner (and former D.C. Council Member) John Ray tried and failed to get DC to allow Riverboat gambling on the Potomac River. Thankfully this proposal is likely to fare about as well. But there are no sure things and corporate money can change a lot of minds.

Granted, much of Northeast Washington, particularly the long stretch along New York Avenue is a pretty depressing place. It needs urban renewal. Currently it is populated with lots of warehouses, cheap motels and burger joints. It’s a truck and commuter route for many Marylanders, and looks as unsafe as it is. It stretches through an area of the District known for its extreme poverty. An MGM Grand Casino Hotel would probably be quite a change for this area.

The logic for this proposal seems to be: give tourists the option to spend more money while in D.C. When they get tired of the Smithsonian they could venture up New York Avenue to satisfy their gambling fever. It’s a lot closer than Atlantic City. Gambling is hard to find in the area. Virginia has off track betting but even most Virginians have no idea where to go to place their bets. Maryland is also considering (and reconsidering) proposals for slot machines at racetracks. So, the logic goes, why shouldn’t DC get on the gambling bandwagon? After all it has its own lottery, as do all the neighboring states. Tourists could inadvertently help fund DC schools when they visit the slot machine emporiums. And we DC area people already know that DC doesn’t get enough in the way of tax money from the U.S. government as it is for the services it provides.

DC residents are already big fans of the DC lottery. They might well prefer the convenience of slot machines instead of waiting to see whether their lotto number came up. And the prevailing wisdom is that choice is good. People can choose whether or not to gamble, but they don’t have that luxury with most other taxes.

I don’t care how nice the gambling establishments are and how many jobs they provide, slot machines are a bad deal for not just the government of D.C. but also for its people. The proposal calls for the district to keep 25% of the revenues, by itself a pretty niggardly amount. But in reality the proposal would do little to add to the prosperity of DC residents.

Here’s what would probably happen instead. The working class people of DC, many of whom already live on the margins and paycheck to paycheck, would be inclined to gamble away their salaries instead of using them to pay for food, shelter and life’s basic necessities. I know that sounds prejudicial, but this is what will happen. Everyone knows it. Since the odds are stacked heavily against the gambler anyhow, the real people who will suffer will not be the gambler, but the spouse and children who depend on the gambler’s income.

Just say no. Would DC invite prostitutes to move into the blocks around New York Avenue as a way to provide jobs and tax revenues? (There are probably some already there, but they certainly weren’t invited in.) Should they give special discounts to package stores and burger joints to build in this area? Gambling is just another vice and for most gamblers it will just lead to poverty.

New York Avenue could certainly use some urban renewal. But this is not the way to go about it. Instead of gambling parlors, slot machines and casinos DC should consider tax breaks to bring in major retailers like Giant Food, Safeway and Target. Many DC residents don’t have the retail options the rest of us take for granted. They pay high prices for mediocre food and drugs. This would help working families stretch their dollars and feel more like mainstream America. I can’t think of any community that would encourage family values by inviting the gambling industry into their town.

Let’s hope the DC Council’s palms don’t get greased on this one. For the citizens of the District, more gambling is a lose-lose proposition.

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