Deal said Tuesday in an interview he will ask the board of the Georgia Lottery Corporation to review the proposal for the Panola Slope resort. With the power to make board appointments, he holds tremendous sway over its decisions, though it’s unclear if the board would intervene.
“I have real concerns about anything that begins to look like a casino,” said Deal, who is opposed to the expansion of gambling. “And this certainly sounds like it resembles one.”
Deal’s comments followed joint reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that revealed details of the resort.
Panola Slope is envisioned as an around-the-clock attraction where adults can play games that are legal under the Georgia Lottery and win vouchers for prizes like steak dinners and lodging in 2,700-square-foot villas.
Backers of the Panola Slope project have said it isn’t a casino, and only legal gaming would be allowed there.
It is the first major gaming attraction proposed since Deal signed legislation in 2013 that cleared the way for more gaming machines in Georgia and continued the state’s prohibition on cash payouts.
The DeKalb County Commission unanimously approved the resort in December, but it still needs to obtain a site license from the Georgia Lottery before it can open.
The Georgia Lottery's board doesn't vote on licenses from locations seeking to host gaming machines, said spokeswoman Kimberly Starks. The board has designated licensing duties to staff, according to rules and regulations approved by the board. Those responsibilities include criminal background checks, credit checks and investigations for compliance with tax obligations.
DeKalb commissioners could also revisit the debate.
Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May suggested that the proposal would have been more thoroughly vetted if the southeast DeKalb district of 140,000 residents had a commissioner. The district has lacked full representation since Deal tapped May to the CEO post in July 2013, replacing CEO Burrell Ellis, who is suspended while he faces corruption charges.
“Enough is enough,” said May, who plans to ask Deal to appoint a temporary commissioner. “This latest zoning issue is the prime example of why we need someone in that seat.”
Lawmakers said they’ve always feared that gambling could expand in Georgia after they passed rules in 2013 that allowed up to nine machines — including slots and video poker — in a single location as long as they didn’t have cash payouts. The law permitted local governments to permit more machines, as DeKalb did.
No other business in Georgia has obtained permission for more than 14 machines in one location.
“What I feared was this was a slippery slope, and it’s turned out to be just that,” said Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who argued in 2013 that lawmakers should outlaw the devices. “South Carolina got rid of all their machines and they came here. We should have banned them from the beginning.”
Several legislators who supported the 2013 law said it wasn’t designed to accommodate major gaming venues, such as the DeKalb proposal. Deal said he would support legislation to tighten the law if needed.
Arch Adams, who helped lead the movement that outlawed video poker, said in 2013 that the legislation would pave the way for its return. On Tuesday, he said he feared his prediction came true.
“Profit from this casino will undoubtedly fund a permanent lobbying effort to press for continued expansion of gambling,” Adams said. “Any success this venture experiences will be paid for dearly by HOPE Scholars and Georgia families.”
Vaughn Irons, the CEO of developer APD Solutions, has said he was careful to comply with Georgia law when preparing to build the resort.
“The vision is to create a destination where people can come, have a great time, enjoy themselves and staycation or vacation in DeKalb County,” said Irons, who is also the chairman of the DeKalb Development Authority, in a recent interview. “Between people coming to stay on the property, or individuals coming to play the games or simulators, or just have a great steak, we think all three of those things are going to create the energy and confluence that’s needed to help a project like that be successful.”
Residents in the underdeveloped area where Panola Slope would be built, outside the eastern intersection of I-285 and I-20, are divided over the project. Some say it would provide jobs and entertainment options, but others fear it would bring crime.
David Brice, who lives about five minutes from the development, said he supports the idea because the area needs more business investment. He doesn’t care to play games at Panola Slope, but he wants to eat at the three restaurants that are planned to be built there.
“There’s no place to eat, and nobody will build anything decent out here,” said Brice, the former president of the Hidden Hills Civic Association. “I’m tired of going to North Atlanta to get a decent steak.”