Big bingo plans announced

Published 12:13 am Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A partnership between a local non-profit group and out-of-state gaming interests could have a 500-game electronic bingo facility up and running in Florala within 45 days if Sheriff Dennis Meeks will issue the non-profit a bingo permit.

Florala Mayor Robert Williamson announced Monday that the Florala Historical Society is partnering with and an un-named Gulf Shores developer backed by out-of-state gaming interests to develop a destination bingo facility in Florala.

Mayor Robert Williamson said, the “economic development venture” could mean an estimated $10 million in annual revenues spread throughout Covington County, jobs for 1,500 people and an untold amount in sales tax revenue.

An ordinance approved by the Florala City Council last month established minimum standards for such a facility, but also allows operators to open a temporary facility during the construction phase of the proposed destination facility, which those close to the negotiations say would resemble Wind Creek in Atmore.

While Florala’s ordinance sets out parameters for such a facility, a charity still needs a permit from the county – specifically from the sheriff – to operate.

The Florala Historical Society made application with Sheriff Dennis Meeks on Friday. Monday, the sheriff declined refused to answer whether he would issue a permit.

Instead, he gave the following written statement, “In accordance with Acts of Alabama, First Special Section 1993, Act. Number 93-886, Section 1, subsection 1, the definition of ‘bingo’ has the following meaning: ‘The game where numbers or symbols on a card are matched with numbers or symbols selected at random.’

“A card is commonly made of paper,” the statement read. “Therefore, until the Alabama Legislature changes or amends the existing law, or the Alabama Supreme Court renders a decision in the affirmative that electronic bingo machines are legal, this office will uphold the law, based on the local act that is in place at this time in Covington County.”

The legality of electronic bingo in Alabama has been called into question in recent days in light of Gov. Bob Riley’s illegal gambling task force led by Mobile County district attorney John Tyson. The task force’s attempts to raid VictoryLand in Shorter and Country Crossing near Dothan have led owners of those facilities to close their doors.

Asked about the ramifications of those actions on Florala’s plans, Williamson said, “That’s a risk we’re willing to take. The sheer economic impact (from an electronic bingo facility) can’t be ignored.

“The fact remains that Florala is an economically depressed area,” he said. “We would pursue any viable industry that generates jobs, just like if it was a car manufacturer. In this instance, that industry happens to be electronic bingo.”

Williamson said the developer, who is associated with gaming interests operating in 27 states across the country, approached the city and presented the most detailed plan for the facility. He said in total, five groups contacted the city about the possibility of operating in Florala, and the developer with whom the city is working does not have ties to any gaming interest in Alabama.

“When we met with the developers, you could see they had done a large amount of planning for our area,” he said. “And although actual plans have not been submitted, they will include a full entertainment complex including a full-service restaurant, sandwich shop, retail, entertainment venue, hotel and 2,500 electronic bingo machines.

“I guess they chose our area because of the combination of the bottleneck of (U.S. Hwy.) 331 and (Alabama Hwy.) 55, plus the close proximity to the state line,” he said.

Williamson said the first contact between the city and the developer occurred in January, the day after the city adopted an ordinance establishing regulations for bingo facilities.

“That’s why there was a rush to get our ordinance in place,” he said. “The county commission has elected to not establish any guidelines, and we needed to do what we could to protect Florala and make sure we would see revenue from it.”

If the facility is constructed, estimates presented Monday showed a workforce of 1,500 employees with an average pay of $10 to $13 per hour and a return of an estimated $10 million annually countywide – money that would be divided among more than 30 local non-profits, area municipalities and education systems. (For a complete breakdown, see information box.)

“It’s not our intent to offend anyone (included in the beneficiary list) and it’s completely up to them whether or not to take the money,” he said. “But when we said (the facility) would not only benefit Florala but also Covington County as a whole, we meant it.”

But would the facility be legal?

“In our opinion, yes,” said City attorney Wesley Laird.

In a written letter sent to the city shortly after the bingo ordinance was adopted, Alabama Attorney General Troy King said a technicality in the legislation allowing bingo in Covington County — specifically the word “card” — limits bingo locally in a way other counties aren’t limited.

In the early 1990s, Alabama voters approved constitutional amendment 565, which gives the county commission the authority to “promulgate rules and regulations for issuing permits or licenses and for operating bingo games within the county.”

Act No. 93-886 of the Alabama legislature allows that “a bona fide religious, educational, service, senior citizens, fraternal or veterans organization” which operates without profit may be permitted to conduct bingo.

The act also defines bingo as “the game where numbers or symbols on a card are matched with numbers or symbols selected at random.”

And it is that sentence that King says makes Covington County’s situation different.

However, Laird contends the state has not considered if it’s legal for machines to facilitate the matching.

“In Dothan and other parts of the state, (King) has stated that with the right machines, it’s legal,” he said. “The machines must meet the qualifications, which our developer has been very careful to make sure the machines meet the Supreme Court’s six-point test.”

When Williamson was questioned about the possibility of a raid on any future facility, he said, “Of course we weighed the possibility of a raid, but the legality of our ordinance and the pursuit of economic development, it becomes simplistic – it’s about our economy and the people of Florala without jobs. Everything else becomes secondary.”

Williamson urged local residents to contact legislators to “let the people decide” the legality of electronic bingo.

He said he plans to travel to Montgomery today to hopefully speak during a public hearing set by the Tourism and Marketing Committee to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow electronic bingo at 10 locations.