Casino boats gain support
Mayor Keith Summey appears to have the minimum six City Council votes needed to launch casino boat gambling from the Cooper River -- meaning the cruises could be operating by the end of this year, offering slots, blackjack, dining and other forms of entertainment offshore.
How profitable the boats will be is anyone's guess. City officials have relied mostly on anecdotal information from places the cruises operate elsewhere to project what the revenue stream might be. While a financial forecast is expected to be done ahead of the gambling ordinance debate, some City Council members say their support is riding more on the belief the boats will be profitable.
"It's one of those where the mayor throws out 'a million dollars,' " said councilman Ed Astle, who supports the boats.
"It's a sleazy business run by sleazy people," added Councilwoman Phoebe Miller. Even so, Miller plans to vote in favor, saying she supports Summey vision.
Based on where gambling boats now operate in South Carolina, out of Little River, north of Myrtle Beach, North Charleston has the potential to make a lot of income for not much effort. Under a court settlement, the Little River boat operators pay the Horry County government a flat fee of $7 per rider. For fiscal 2009, the county's take was almost $1.75 million from nearly 250,000 people.
But there are also examples of casino boats making a local splash, then going bust. The SunCruz Casino boat operated for 11 years out of Ponce Inlet, Fla., near Daytona Beach, before it halted operations in 2008. At the time its owners blamed a silty waterway and competition from other gambling options in a state where legal gambling on several tiers is in play, including jai alai, casinos and dog tracks.
David Schwartz, director of the Center of Gambling Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said the expansion of gambling nationwide means gambling is no longer a cash-cow certainty.
"These days, it's hard to rely on casino revenues," he said, adding that the cruises could be profitable in the long run here but currently are locked in a two-year decline in most major markets.
"In the past two years, three Las Vegas-based casino companies have entered bankruptcy, so it's far from a sure bet that a casino will be successful," he added.
The modern-day push to legalize casino boats in South Carolina started in Murrells Inlet in the late 1990s, but faltered at the dock when the Coast Guard cited an infraction. Before the company was able to make the fix, Georgetown County outlawed casino boats.
They eventually took hold after the Legislature passed a bill specifically allowing local governments the authority to accept or reject them.
The boats survived several courtroom challenges before Little River made them a regular occurrence. North Charleston had tried to get them going previously, in 2002, but that effort stalled after most of council said no. Today, South Carolina is one of at least six states from Texas to Massachusetts that allow day-gambling ships or casino cruises.
Outside Savannah, Ga., where North Charleston officials toured the Diamond Casino boat this month, Chatham County Commission Chairman Peter Liakakis said he's received "no complaints whatsoever" associated with the gambling boat set up there.
"People calling and saying they were scammed on the boat, we haven't had any of that," he said. Chatham County's take from the boats is minimal, only receiving money from what the boat operation pays in property taxes and a business license.
North Charleston is looking at allowing the cruises to operate from property around the former Charleston Naval Base complex. As envisioned, a boat up to the 300-foot range in length would leave up to twice a day on about an eight-mile ride past the harbor mouth, then three miles more to the international water zone. Opponents of the gambling boats soon dubbed them "voyages to nowhere" since, after leaving port, the boats cruise around international waters beyond the state's territorial limit for gambling to legally take place.
Preliminary estimates are that as many as 150,000 to 200,000 people could buy tickets each year, including local residents, tourists and regional visitors. Financially, the city thinks it can net between $500,000 and $1.5 million annually based on the city's take from taxes, ticket sales and fees.
Plus, there's the associated draw from filling nearby hotels. Charleston County Councilman Paul Thurmond also suggested recently that if the boats do come in, county government could collect property taxes associated with boats that port here longer than six months a year.
A date for considering the casino ordinance has not been set, but the first move is to rescind the section of the city code that prohibits them. After that, the city will begin seeking operation qualifications and proposals from companies interested in operating here.
Everything should begin to unfold in the next 60 days.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-555 or email@example.com.