MGM CEO pitches casino gambling as boon to HOPE, economy

The debate about casino gambling in Georgia is about to return in a big way.

On Monday, the Chairman and CEO of casino and hotel operator MGM Resorts International told metro Atlanta business and civic leaders that Las Vegas-style gambling, including a $1 billion-plus resort in Atlanta, could be an economic engine for the state and could boost the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship.

James Murren’s visit to the Rotary Club of Atlanta comes weeks after a recent study conducted by an education coalition, backed in part by gambling interests, found that the program faces potential financial challenges in the years ahead.

Murren said Georgians spend $600 million a year at casinos outside the state, according to MGM’s research.

Casinos face opposition by many faith-based groups who have long been opposed to the practice and remain a formidable force at the Capitol. And a recent study by an influential downtown business group tossed some cold water on estimates of what gambling could do for the region.

A constitutional amendment to allow up to four casinos – including two in metro Atlanta – failed to gain traction in this year’s legislative session amid opposition from Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston.

Last year, MGM proposed a $1 billion-plus destination resort and casino in downtown Atlanta.

On Monday, Murren told Rotarians a destination resort would not compete with the lottery and would help drive new tourism business, not cannibalize what’s already here. He said about two-thirds of the company’s revenue comes from non-gaming sources such as events, food and hotel room-nights.

“We only go into markets where we believe we can provide a destination addition to a market,” he said. “We’re not interested in commodities, we’re not interested in the slot business. We’re interested in the type of resorts that provide a nexus between entertainment, hospitality and gaming.”

In a Monday morning interview, Murren told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that if gambling is legalized and if his company were allowed to operate in Georgia, MGM might invest more than $1.4 billion to create “an integrated resort” featuring a casino, hotel, concert hall, restaurants and shopping.

He said such a facility would employ perhaps 4,000 people and be complementary to, not competitive with, Atlanta’s bustling hospitality industry.

Legalizing casinos could also pump hundreds of millions of dollars into lottery-funded education programs such as HOPE. The value of HOPE awards has been curtailed in recent years in the face of growing student demand and tuition and a flattening revenue curve.

A study by The Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships that projected financial pressures on the program will likely get major play during the upcoming legislative session.

MGM, which had an army of lobbyists at the State Capitol this year, will again be a major backer of a renewed push.

“This is a tremendously appealing market,” Murren said in an interview with the AJC. “Georgia is very vibrant state, a large economy, diverse, it sits literally at the terminus of the entire Southeast. It has a tremendous airport, great corporate base already and it’s surrounded by gaming in one form or another.

“We’ve been able to do more research since I last saw you about how much money is leaving your state (to gamble elsewhere),” he said. “It’s better than $600 million a year that Georgians are gambling in other states.”

More on this story as it develops…

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