Unprecedented gaming resort planned

A plush, 24-hour gaming resort featuring up to 425 machines that pay out non-cash prizes may be coming soon to an underdeveloped area of South DeKalb.

It would be the closest thing to a casino in a state that bans most forms of gambling, according to joint reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

Backers of the project, including a company with ties to the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe, call it a “barcade” — a place for video games with prizes in the form of vouchers that can be redeemed toward steak dinners or on-site lodging. Envisioned as a sort of Dave & Busters for adults, games may include slots, video poker, a virtual reality roller coaster and golf and military simulators.

The site, called Panola Slope, would feature 2,700-square-foot rooms, butler services, three restaurants, an outdoor entertainment venue, meeting spaces and shopping.

The resort would be the first of its kind of Georgia. The DeKalb County Commission unanimously approved it in December. The next step is to get its license application approved by the Georgia Lottery Corporation, which will complete background checks on the site’s owners and operators, ensure taxes have been paid and verify the site will comply with state law before operations can begin, possibly as soon as Labor Day.

No other business has obtained permission for more than 14 machines in one location. Those games are located at a Chevron station in Stockbridge.

“The whole notion or comparison to a casino is primarily because we want it to be high energy,” said Vaughn Irons, the CEO of Atlanta-based APD Solutions, the project’s developer. “It is important that people understand that we’re not trying to do something new and different that isn’t already allowable. We’re not trying to skirt the law or get involved in some kind of subterfuge. We are very clearly staying within the lines of the law.”

The entertainment complex would be located along the four-lane Covington Highway near Lithonia, where a series of condominiums and shops were built several years ago but failed to attract buyers. Those residences would be transformed into 24 rental “villas” for guests of the Panola Slope resort, and the shopping area will house three restaurants and other retail.

Critics of the effort say Panola Slope is a short step removed from full-fledged gambling, and they question whether it will encourage economic growth or result in more crime and blight.

“This is a fairy-tale dream. … It sounds good, but let’s just be realistic here,” said Tre James, a resident who spoke at the DeKalb Commission’s Dec. 16 meeting. “If no one wants to pay $180,000 to live there, why would you pay $180 a night to go to a resort on Covington Highway? There’s nothing over there.”

Efforts to expand gaming in Georgia — at Underground Atlanta and on the property of fiber-optics manufacturer OFS near I-85 — have failed. Those projects stalled while awaiting approvals that never came from the Georgia Lottery’s board of directors to offer virtual lottery terminals, but Panola Slope would use cash-operated gaming machines that are already regulated and taxed.

But Irons and Red Alligator, the tribal company that bought the 10-acre Panola Slope property for $6 million in March, believe the project will be a success. Irons said the area isn’t as downtrodden as many believe . With a median household income of $74,000, residents have disposable income to spend.

Though cash payouts from these types of games are illegal in Georgia, visitors will come to the resort for a good time, said Marshall Sampson, the CEO of Red Alligator and vice chairman of the tribal council of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe, which owns the Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville, La.

“Wait till you see the good food, wait till you see the good entertainment, and you will not think you’re in Covington Highway,” Sampson told Channel 2. “It would not be an Indian casino. That cannot happen. So rest assured, the people of Georgia.”

The games would be operated under the rules of the Georgia Lottery and state law, which allow vouchers redeemable on-site. A portion of the proceeds help support the HOPE Scholarship and pre-K programs funded by the Georgia Lottery.

Georgia is one of 10 states without a commercial or tribal casino, according to the American Gaming Association.

Panola Slope is trying to look like a casino without being legalized and regulated like one, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Whyte said he’s concerned that Georgians could develop gambling problems without having access to prevention and treatment programs.

“The closer you can make your offering to something that feels like gambling, the more attractive and profitable it’s going to be, but of course the more potential you have for addiction. So there’s a trade-off there,” he said.

Doreen Carter, the president of the Greater Lithonia Chamber of Commerce, said Panola Slope is not a typical economic development idea, but it’s worth a try. The resort’s developers estimate they will create 151 jobs with an average income of $51,000.

“We’re not naive. We know this is a unique project,” Carter said. “We know gambling is illegal in Georgia, but there are people who go to other places and play these games. … If it’s done right and they create something positive, it could be good for the community.”

While Panola Slope is planned as an extension of the Georgia Lottery, DeKalb Police Lt. Curtis Williams fears it could lead to illegal activity. Williams wrote in an email forwarded to the DeKalb Commission that a number of convenience stores are illegally paying cash rewards from their cash-operated amusement machines.

“Although the applicant states that there would not be any cash payouts, there is a high probability that the establishment will begin making cash payouts once they realize how lucrative that would be,” Williams wrote.

Georgia law usually caps the number of coin-operated machines in a location at nine, but a local government can approve more,

Irons hasn’t yet sought a location license from the Georgia Lottery as he’s negotiating with gaming machine owners. The license can take a month or more to be approved.

The Georgia Lottery isn’t currently involved with the proposed resort in DeKalb or any resort in the state, said spokeswoman Kimberly Starks. The Georgia Lottery licenses gaming machines and locations but doesn’t operate them.

Gaming in Georgia

Georgia is one of 10 states that doesn’t have a casino, but limited gaming is allowed under the Georgia Lottery.

Besides traditional lottery games, state law also allows cash operated amusement machines that dispense prizes redeemable only on the premise where the game is located. Those machines may include video games, pinball, foosball, shooting gallery machines, simulators and virtual reality machines.

Only nine machines that give rewards to players are allowed at one location unless a local jurisdiction passes an ordinance allowing more. The DeKalb Commission approved up to 425 machines at Panola Slope as part of a zoning ordinance in December.