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Doubling Down On Tourism

November 17, 2006

Fellow Puritans, it's time to wake up to gambling.

No, not the way it destroys lives. It does and we need to deal with this.

I'm talking about an industry literally exploding here, one that will soon be the state's largest private employer, one that arrived - albeit without invitation - when all those defense jobs went south in the 1990s. It's driving the economy of half of our state.

Around Hartford we pretend that this nearly $3 billion business barely exists, except when it backs the armored truck up to the state Capitol every month and unloads another $35 million in slots revenue for the legislature and governor to divvy up, guilt-free.

Gambling attracts an astounding 25 million people here annually. Do we just make like good Connecticut Yankees and avert our eyes from this, pretending that a state-subsidized sporting goods store at Rentschler Field instead represents an economic future?

Look around, the state's economy is changing right in front of us. Like it or not, casinos are a growing part of it.

Last week Bayer HealthCare announced that it was leaving and dumping 1,000 jobs. Yesterday, Mohegan Sun revealed plans for a $740 million expansion that will add 1,500 jobs. Foxwoods is already at work on a $700 million renovation that will add thousands more.

In eastern Connecticut, where opposition has gone dormant as the Indians build ever-larger casinos, local leaders are now asking why the state isn't using gambling to better advantage. Instead, we cut the budget promoting tourism.

"Are the casinos going to be isolated places unto themselves - or are we going to be like Las Vegas, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation," said Robert Zarnetske, city manager in Norwich.

I'm not quite thinking Vegas, but Zarnetske makes an important point.

"Rather than ignoring it, what they ought to be doing is regulating it well," Zarnetske said. "The question is how do you take the gaming revenue and use it wisely so you are building a tourism industry."

Hotel builder Len Wolman said that the casinos are the engine behind tourism, a business growing faster than manufacturing, finance and insurance.

"It's the biggest growth industry," said Wolman, co-chairman of the "tourism cluster" on the Governor's Competitiveness Council. "It's also the industry that the state has given the least to in terms of reinvestment."

I understand economists when they say that casino jobs merely promote more consumption, as opposed to jobs that create real products that add value and feed the economy.

We also must talk frankly about the costs, like the burden those casino visitors impose on Norwich, Preston, Ledyard and North Stonington, and our shameful see-no-evil attitude toward problem gambling.

But as economist Don Klepper-Smith pointed out to me, "job growth is better than no job growth."

The reality is that we'll have 25,000 casino employees before long. They buy cars, hold mortgages, pay taxes and send their children to public school.

Sure, we need to demand more from the tribes operating these money factories. But we could use a gambling policy that amounts to more than just counting slot machine revenues and that takes better advantage of the 70,000 people who show up at these casinos every day.

It's no longer whether casinos should exist here. Gambling is big and growing larger. We might as well make something out of it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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