Arts venues to Ga. reps: Block concert sites at hypothetical casinos

A coalition of arts and entertainment venues urged Georgia lawmakers against allowing future gambling facilities from including performance spaces, saying it would undermine their business.

Allan Vella, the president and CEO of the Fox Theatre, said while the coalition didn’t oppose expanding gambling in Georgia, he worried that allowing potential casinos to include entertainment space could force arts and culture venues across the state out of business.

“We’re not afraid of competition,” Vella said.

But he added, “You would be legislating a competitive advantage.”

Georgia lawmakers are studying the potential economic impact of expanding gambling with casinos, horse racing or sports betting. Any expansion would require the approval of two-thirds of each legislative chamber and then a majority of voters to approve a constitutional amendment.

Supporters say the expansion would bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime.

Vella's testimony came amid comments from executives with companies such as MGM Resorts, Wynn Development and the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition touting gaming success stories in other states.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brett Harrell, who is one of a trio of chairmen overseeing a House panel tasked with examining the economic benefits of allowing gambling in the state, called it extreme to ban a casino from having an entertainment venue. He cited casinos in the Washington and Boston areas that he said have not crippled surrounding arts and entertainment venues.

“The suggestion that we’re going to decimate an entire industry is a little far-fetched based on what we’ve seen from other markets,” the Snellville Republican said.

Vella, speaking on behalf of the Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition, said allowing entertainment space at a casino or racetrack would undermine their businesses. The coalition includes the Fox and other venues across the state, such as the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth and the Augusta Entertainment Complex.

Vella said gambling revenue allows casinos to pay artists more to perform at their venue.

“Casinos will set the bar on price, and other venues in the state will not be able to compete,” he said.

It took nearly two days of testimony before anyone opposed expanding gambling.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said Wednesday that he’s spent the past five years fighting against various gambling and gaming proposals.

“We’re hearing a lot of good things today, but you’re talking to the foxes in charge of the henhouse,” Griffin said. “Not everything that glitters is gold. I’ve heard everything promised here but the second coming of Jesus.”

But state Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat who said he's been a deacon in the Baptist Church for 45 years, recalled an argument he heard when the state was voting to allow the lottery.

“Don’t you think every man’s got a right to go to hell if he wants to?” he asked Griffin.