ATLANTA — Supporters of legalizing casino gambling in Georgia have failed to make headway in the General Assembly year after year for the last decade amid intense opposition from religious conservatives.
But this year's push features a different wrinkle. A Georgia developer who helped build The Battery, a mixed-use complex in Cobb County that includes the Atlanta Braves' Truist Park, recently released renderings of three proposed casino resorts around the state, injecting tangible details into an issue that has been debated more often in broad generalities.
"It gives a hometown flavor to have somebody in Georgia who would be a frontline player," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, co-sponsor of a constitutional amendment to legalize casinos in Georgia introduced in the state House of Representatives late last month.
Smyre's hometown is the site of one of the casinos proposed by Rick Lackey, founder of Atlanta-based City Commercial Real Estate. It would be built along the Chattahoochee River.
Lackey also is eyeing sites along Interstate 85 in Lavonia near the South Carolina line and along I-95 in Midway south of Savannah. Besides casinos, the resorts would include luxury hotels, entertainment venues and retail shopping.
Siting casinos along Georgia's north-south interstate highways is key to attracting tourists, Lackey said.
"There are people who drive through Georgia on I-75, I-85 or I-95 on their way to Florida," he said. "At some point, they're going to stop and get gas, a Chick-fil-A sandwich and go to the bathroom. We don't have anywhere for them to stop and stay."
House Resolution 30 calls for a statewide referendum asking voters to authorize a "limited number" of casino resorts. If two-thirds of the state House and Senate vote for the constitutional change, it would land on the statewide ballot in November of next year.
While previous efforts to get casino gambling through the legislature have fizzled, Lackey said Georgia's economic plight amid the coronavirus pandemic makes this year different. Casinos offer tens of thousands of jobs — both temporary construction and permanent — and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment, he said.
"In the past, Georgia had very low unemployment and very high tax revenues," Lackey said. "Now, we don't. We have a need for jobs and increasing tax revenues."
Under House Resolution 30, a portion of the proceeds from casinos would go toward the HOPE Scholarship and other tuition and grant programs at both public and private colleges and universities as well as Technical College System of Georgia campuses.
While the Georgia Lottery Corp. just reported record profits for the last six months of 2020, lottery ticket sales are failing to keep pace with the demand for scholarships, which has opened up a $300 million hole in HOPE funding, said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, the resolution's chief sponsor.
For Stephens and other supporters, the need to prop up the HOPE program provides a powerful argument for legalizing casinos.
Stephens said another advantage to the legislation is that casinos would not be able to set up shop where they're not wanted. If voters statewide approve the constitutional amendment, a second local vote would be required to build a casino in a city or county, the same requirement the General Assembly imposed on Sunday sales of alcohol 10 years ago.
"Citizens are going to have to ask for it before it's even considered," Stephens said.
Supporters of legalized gambling have gotten off to a head start in selling Lavonia, Columbus and Midway on casinos. City councils in all three communities have endorsed putting resort casinos in their midst.
In Lavonia, Lackey's company has a 500-acre site along Lake Hartwell under a lease agreement. About 8.6 million people live within a two-hour drive, and 37.6 million can get there within five hours.
"It would be a perfect place," said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, another cosponsor of House Resolution 30.
Metro-Atlanta's six million residents enjoy easy access to Columbus via interstates 20 and 185, and the city lies along a popular route to the Gulf Coast beaches.
The planned casino site in Midway is adjacent to and just east of I-95. Up to five million people live within a two-hour drive.
"It's basically suburban Savannah," Lackey said.
The House has yet to hold a hearing on House Resolution 30.
Powell said the casino measure should be combined with legislative proposals to legalize sports betting and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing into one giant constitutional amendment. As it stands now, a sports betting bill before the House is in the form of a statute rather than a constitutional change.
"Gambling's gambling, whether it's sports betting, destination casinos or horse racing," Powell said.
There's also Gov. Brian Kemp to consider. The governor is "not a big fan" of legalizing gambling in Georgia and could veto anything that comes out of the General Assembly as a standalone bill.
Constitutional amendments, however, bypass the governor and go directly to the voters.
Polls have shown strong support among the public for legalized gambling.
"They're ready to go," Stephens said.
"For too long, we have allowed this to linger," Smyre added. "It's time to fish or cut bait."