By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Gray clouds hung low over the Booker T. Washington High School on West Martin Luther King Highway in Macon County Thursday.
A press conference was called by educators and leading citizens to voice thier support for the continued operations of VictoryLand.
“Starting with pari-mutuel dog track, VictoryLand has been an important force for educational opportunity,” said Macon County BOE President Theodore Samuels.
But that opportunity has faded since Milton McGregor shuttered VictoryLand in August 2010.
At the beginning of the holiday season, McGregor reopened the once thriving casino, but it is today a work in progress.
The educators of Macon County still feel the sting of former Bob Riley’s gambling task force who worked to force McGregor out of business.
Macon County Superintendent Jacqueline Brooks said Thursday that the Macon County school system system has lost about $2.7 million in ad valorem taxes that could have been realized if the casino had remained open.
Standing in front of Booker T. Washington High School on West Martin Luther King Highway, one is reminded of the two giants in the pantheon of the black struggle.
Washington, one of the last generation of black American leaders born in slavery once said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” The struggle for education and self determination according to Mr. Samuels is at the heart of the VictoryLand issue.
“We are a poor county,” said Samuels. “Our major industry has been devastated, how do we tell our children that they can’t have what other children have?”
Samuels, says that the income from VictoryLand allowed the county to build Booker T. Washington High School, “It also let us recruit good teachers and provide athletics for our children.”
Since the closing of the gaming center, Samuels says the county has had to layoff teachers and cancel summer sports altogether.
At one time VictoryLand provided $25,000 a year per school in the county as well as $25,000 per year for the Central Office of BOE.
“That $25,000 a year went a long way to helping our teachers and the children,” said Samuels.
He said the lost of the $800,000 a year in ad valorem taxes VictoryLand provided has changed the whole educational environment.
While many in Alabama seem to despise the gaming industry, the educators in Macon County appear to cling to the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said, “Money, like any other force such as electricity, is amoral and can be used for either good or evil.”
“It is as simple as this, some say the machines are illegal but I don’t remember the a court coming in and saying they are illegal,” said Samuels. “But the main point for us is we want to provide a quality education for our children.”
Samuels says that Bob Riley or Luther Strange do not have to look the children of Macon County in the eye, neither does Governor Bentley, and explain the difference between politics and justice.
“The people of Macon County voted on a constitutional amendment to allow bingo in in any form, now they want to take that away,” he said.
Samuels says he remembers when Bob Riley came down to Macon County, “He was trying to pass amendment one. He came and talked to us a Tuskegee University and in his speech to us he complimented Milton McGregor as having the finest tourist attraction in Alabama. I guess a lot can change in politics in a few years.”
Former deputy state finance director Andy Hornsby, a native of Macon County, shares the educator’s frustration, “I have been upset about the loss of our number one private industry in VictoryLand and the reasons that we lost it.”
Hornsby says that he believes that VictoryLand is a perfectly legitimate business, “No court has ever said that our business is anything but legitimate but yet we have had political infringement by both the Attorney General and the past administration.”
Hornsby thinks that education has been the major loser in the battle between the so-called anti-gambling faction and the people of Macon County. “The county superintendent spoke this morning about the fact that VictoryLand has produced over $45 million for Macon County Schools. That is an enormous amount of money in a very poor district,” said Hornsby. “We’ve had a good school system up until the time we lost VictoryLand and we are regressing and going the other way.”
He says while he was shocked at the actions of Bob Riley he has been equally disappointed in current Governor Robert Bentley.
Referring to the raiding of White Hall in Lowndes County, Hornsby said, “When a state trooper goes into a business at midnight and puts a pistol in the face of a 75-year-old black woman who is just working to make a living, I don’t like that kind of operation.”
He says he remembers well the words of Governor Bentley when he was running for office, “I listened to him very intently and he said that there would be no more midnight raids. He said that this has got to be settled by the courts. The Governor has spoken to the Attorney General and he is still going around conducting raids. He has not raided GreeneTrack and it has been open for over a year and a half, using the same machines we are using in Macon County.”
Like many Hornsby see politics at work and not law or justice. “The invoices say they are bingo machines. The experts say they are bingo machines. The only two people saying they are slot machines are Bob Riley and Luther Strange.”
Most people in Macon County agree that the legacy of VictoryLand was vital part of education in the county but it came to an abrupt end when the facility closed some two years ago. Now, they say there is a chance to rebuild but fear and worry still are a specter over the future of Macon County.