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How a change in tactics led to a grand new gambling deal

The Poarch Creek Indians and the dog track owners finally did the one thing they’ve been avoiding: Talking to each other.

Over the course of the last 30-plus years, there have been a lot of gambling bills roll through the Alabama Legislature. Very few of those bills had a prayer of passing. Exactly zero bills that would expand gaming statewide, legalize casino gaming and/or implement a lottery have passed. 

One of the many failed attempts came last year when the Poarch Band of Creek Indians offered the state “a billion-dollar deal,” promising to pony up $1 billion in payments to Alabama initially, and then make annual payments, for a plan that would have essentially given the tribe a monopoly and shut down all other venues immediately. 

“A billion dollars — we thought that was a pretty fair deal, offering a billion dollars,” said Wind Creek Gaming vice president of development and governmental relations Arthur Mothershed, with a chuckle. “It didn’t get any traction in the Legislature.”

Mothershed and Wind Creek CEO Jay Dorris, along with David Johnston, the longtime attorney for VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, joined the Alabama Politics This Week podcast to discuss in depth the state’s latest attempt at gambling legislation. 

The primary reason the Poarch Creeks’ proposal failed last year was that it received significant pushback from lawmakers who represented areas of the state where current dog tracks, which are operating electronic bingo machines and other forms of gaming, are currently supplying tax dollars and jobs to very poor communities. Combine their resistance with the lawmakers who flatly oppose gambling regardless — a dwindling but still potent number — and the odds of passing gaming legislation, particularly through Alabama’s House of Representatives, becomes nearly impossible. 

So, tribal leaders and the track owners tried something that they’ve never tried before: compromise. 

Starting a little more than a year ago, the informal chats began. Just friendly banter, tossing around ideas, seeing what might work, making suggestions and changes. Slowly, a grand idea began to take shape. 

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The tribe could get full gaming at all three locations and a new location in the northeastern part of the state, plus they’d still maintain control of the Mobile Greyhound Park, which also would be allowed to operate a full casino. The tracks — VictoryLand, the Birmingham Race Course and GreeneTrack — would also get to operate full casinos. 

“What we’ve been trying wasn’t working,” Dorris said. “At some point, it just made sense to start over and try something different. (The tracks) were trying things, we were trying things, and nothing was getting through the Legislature.”

Mothershed added: “(The lawmakers) said to sit down and talk to the other operators and that’s what we did. We worked this out — something we can live with, something they can live with. It’s not a big fight amongst all of us. We’ve worked things out.”

The result of the compromise, of course, was at least the skeleton of the bill that was introduced in the state senate two weeks ago by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. In addition to the full gaming at the eight locations mentioned previously, there will also be sports wagering at all sites and a statewide lottery.  

“We feel like it’s an excellent bill that is, quite frankly, hard to criticize,” said Johnston, who has represented VictoryLand since it opened in 1983. “Sen. Marsh’s bill treats everyone fairly, and that’s all we’ve ever asked.”

Not everyone is in agreement. Late last week attack ads started popping up in various media outlets and lobbyists started emailing talking points out to reporters to criticize the bill. Most of that effort was paid for by small electronic bingo operators in Greene County and out-of-state parties. 

In prior gambling expansion efforts, casino owners in Mississippi dumped huge amounts of money into Alabama to stop legislation. It worked each time. 

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This time, though, feels different to Johnston. 

“I just think the people of this state are tired of seeing their tax dollars head off to other states and they’ve wised up about this,” Johnston said. “I think people’s mindset on this issue are greatly different than what they were in the past, and I’d predict better than 70 percent would vote for this legislation if we put it on a ballot.”

To underscore that theory, the attack ads aren’t going after the moral or ethical issues related to gambling. Instead, those attacks claim that the McGregor family, which owns a majority stake in VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, plans to sell out to the Poarch Creeks after the deal is done, giving the tribe a gaming monopoly in the state. 

“That doesn’t make any sense, because the tribe already has a monopoly in the state,” Johnston said. “Milton McGregor owned VictoryLand since 1983 and the Birmingham Race Course since 1992, and before he passed away he had groomed his son-in-law Lewis Benefield to take over, and he’s done just an outstanding job. The McGregors could have sold out many times over the years. They had the offers to do so. They never have and that’s not the mindset now.”

You can listen to more of these interviews at the Alabama Politics This Week website or by subscribing to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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