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Guest column: Casinos in state could harm arts venues
MaryPat MastersonWEB
Mary Pat Matheson

When gamblers lay down their chips, they’re hoping to strike it rich by beating the odds. But the math is clear: There are more losers than winners; the industry couldn’t function otherwise.

As the Georgia General Assembly debates the merits of allowing resort casinos, proponents promise this bet will pay off and attract more tourism, a billion-dollar investment in new infrastructure, job creation and a windfall for college scholarships.

But as Gov. Nathan Deal has noted, casino gambling could also cannibalize the Georgia Lottery revenues that fund the HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs. In other words, he’s warning us to at least consider what we may lose in this bargain.

Similarly, the Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition, which represents 19 members across the state, wants legislators to understand fully how casinos with large entertainment theaters could seriously damage existing, family-friendly destinations that contribute significantly to the quality of life in our state.

As the president and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Gainesville, I assure you we’re not afraid of competition. We compete every day in a market saturated with many businesses and nonprofits that offer top-shelf acts and fun activities.

A casino with an entertainment venue that can seat thousands, however, is no ordinary competitor. Rather than facing off on a level playing field, casinos are able to box out existing venues by paying far above market rates for top acts. They use these events as loss leaders to bring in customers — and then make their profits on gambling.

Adding to the problem, casinos can demand exclusivity agreements in return for their big payouts, preventing acts from performing shows within a certain radius of the casino.

We don’t have to speculate on how casinos change a market; we can look at other regions across the country where casinos are located. Surveys of performing arts venues in those areas report that 70 percent say they lost concert acts to casinos. Theaters in smaller markets were forced out of certain entertainment segments while those in larger markets saw a steady erosion of business, and many say they lost significant revenues and reduced their workforce.

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, we offer a unique and beautiful setting where patrons commune with nature, but we’re also so much more than that. We host art exhibits and our venue hosts a popular concert series. The beautiful amphitheater at the Gainesville garden has hosted two summers of concert series and we’re planning now for the third.

Revenues from these offerings allow us to give back to our community in a significant way. For one, we boost the local economy. In 2016, we hosted 650,000 visitors, with 25 percent of those from out of state, and employ 200 Georgians.

A main focus of the gardens’ mission is education, both on site and through community outreach, particularly in local schools. The gardens serve more than 16,000 students annually in programs such as lectures, classes and summer camps, and welcomes more than 4,000 kindergarteners from public schools during three outings annually.

Every other member of the Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition could tell a similar story. If any of them were hurt or shut down because of casino theaters, we wouldn’t just be trading one set of seats for another. We would lose special and unique community assets that are part of our history and our cultural fabric, that enrich, educate and entertain us and that, unlike a casino, are appropriate for the whole family.

The coalition isn’t take a stand for or against the casino legislation, but it does want to make sure that we have safeguards in place so that we don’t lose way more than we were willing to gamble.

Mary Pat Matheson is the president and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which includes the Smithgall Woodland Legacy campus in Gainesville.

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