North Charleston gives Cooper River proposal initial OK for casino boat plan

North Charleston City Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome takes a turn at throwing the dice at a craps table while touring a casino boat in Savannah this summer. City Council gave its initial approval Wednesday to bringing similar casino boats to the Cooper River.

North Charleston City Council opened the door Wednesday night for gambling boats to sail out of the Cooper River, rejecting the idea of a citywide referendum next year.

In a series of votes, council gave initial approval to the casino boat package. And since Mayor Keith Summey appears to have the majority six council votes he needs to pass the final measure, the boats could begin operating from the waterfront as soon as this winter if all of the necessary City Code changes pass in the coming weeks.

Speaking to a council committee, Summey said the boats would not be a radical introduction of the vice of gambling, pointing out that the state already backs games of chance by running a lottery.

The difference now, he said, is that North Charleston will start claiming a piece of the gaming money that is in circulation, through fees and other taxes and charges the boat operators will pay.

As far as the lottery goes, "I haven't seen one penny of that money come to North Charleston," he said, adding that choosing to go on one of the boats will be an individual's choice, not something that is forced on anyone. "It's an issue of what people want to do within reason. It's a choice people have."

Four members of council's Committee of the Whole represented the major opposition, with Councilman Bobby Jameson saying council hasn't been properly educated on the impact of the cruises to take action. He suggested the effort be delayed until a citywide vote can be held a year from now.

The idea died for lack of support, with some council members saying it would most likely pass anyway and that any delay would just be putting off the inevitable.

As envisioned, the boats' docking area would be confined, by zoning, to a specific area that covers the waterfront south of Riverfront Park to as far down as Shipyard Creek. Whichever boat companies opt to come in would have to negotiate with private property owners about setting up parking and a docking/departure point in that area. About three sites are large enough to be suitable, city officials said.

Wednesday's actions covered three changes in the city code: amending the city's business license category to include gambling boat coverage (9-1 in favor); repealing a 1999 ordinance that prohibited gambling devices (6-4); and establishing a surcharge for the gambling cruises (9-1).

North Charleston has proposed two methods of gambling boat surcharges to generate city revenue. One is for the gambling boat owners to pay a rate equal to 10 percent of the face amount of each ticket sold, plus an additional 5 percent on gross proceeds of each boat. The other is to allow the boats to run the surcharge at a flat rate of $7 per passenger.

City staffers estimate North Charleston's revenue could approach $700,000 per year at the low end from the operation of the boats. The money would go into the city's general fund, meaning there would be no specifically designated allocation each year for the proceeds.

The cruises would offer slots, blackjack, poker and other casino games, plus dining and entertainment to passengers offshore. The boats would leave North Charleston, sail out through the harbor to a point outside the state's territorial limit, where the gambling would begin.

Gambling boat cruises became legal years ago after the Legislature passed a bill specifically allowing local governments the authority to accept or reject them. In South Carolina they currently operate out of Little River, north of Myrtle Beach. Opponents have dubbed them "cruises to nowhere" because they leave port, head to sea for the gambling, then return a few hours later.

Summey said he wants to attract some of the industry's larger boats that also could feature dining, shows and other entertainment.

Wednesday's vote was just a first step in the process. A public hearing will be held on the gambling boat issue, probably next month.

City Councilman Steve Ayer was one of the four members of council who voted against the idea, saying that so much work has been done to overcome what many see as a negative reputation surrounding North Charleston. "This may be a positive thing," he said, "but it's not going to be a wholly positive thing."