Georgia remains a tempting target for Las Vegas.
The Peach State has the world’s busiest airport, a Top 10 media market and a growing population. But state lawmakers, backed by powerful faith groups, have beaten back attempts to expand gambling here.
The push to come in the next legislative session, however, may be unlike any Georgia has seen. MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren made his case to the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday for a $1 billion-plus casino resort in Atlanta, echoing a proposal MGM made last year.
MGM has a powerful roster of lobbyists and consultants, and casino magnate Steve Wynn recently hired the well-connected Dentons law firm to head its lobbying effort. Pro-casino groups will promote the industry as a job creator and boon to lottery-backed education programs such as the HOPE Scholarship.
But while an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this winter found 62 percent of voters would back casinos if some revenue went to HOPE, anti-casino groups on both the right and left still wield considerable power under the Gold Dome.
Murren talked with the AJC about the company’s push.
Q: A bid to change the state constitution to allow casinos failed this past winter. What have you learned about Georgia in that time both as a market and its political dynamics?
A: This is a tremendously appealing market. 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 … about how much money is leaving your state (to gamble elsewhere). It’s better than $600 million a year that Georgians are gambling in other states.
Q: That’s significantly larger than past estimates…
A: [The estimates] were in the $400 million range. But that is only going to increase. There are already 6,000 slot machines in Alabama and Alabama is looking to expand. They are obviously expanding casinos in North Carolina. (Harrah’s recently opened a new casino right across the Georgia border).
There’s economic (analysis) we’ve done that only supports the point that people are availing themselves of gaming, they’re just not doing it here. So you are not getting the tax revenue, they are not providing jobs, it’s not helping businesses or anything.
…Our focus is on education and providing data. We’re data junkies and more analytical folks.
We are meeting with more and more businesses and talking with them about what their concerns are or what their excitement is. And we’re getting a lot of the excitement and less and less of the concerns. I think that’s because people are starting to look at this in a clear-eyed way.
Q: And on the political climate in Georgia, what have you learned?
A: On the political side the experience in Georgia is not unlike others we’ve had. This is a complicated and complex subject. It requires a tremendous amount of thoughtful analysis. I’ve never been a believer that anything done quickly can be done well. I feel like there’s been a healthy level of debate, dialogue and discussion and we are in this for the long game. We are here to provide resources. We are not the kind of company that tells any country or state what is best for them.
Only Georgia can decide what is best for Georgia. …I am not at all surprised and certainly not discouraged in any way. …Georgia has the opportunity to do something that is unique. They have the benefit of evaluating every other state in the United States that has approached this issue.
Q: You face groups morally opposed to gambling. For many the lottery upsets them. How do you convince those who see gambling not as a benefit to Georgia but a social and moral liability?
A: I am a very faithful person myself. I believe in my faith and I also strongly believe in others’ rights to not only express their faith, whatever that may be, but also their opinions.
What I would say and what I have said starting with my mom, who thought she failed me when I moved to Las Vegas 18 years ago. [I told her] ‘Mom, come and take a look at what we do.’ And she did and now I can’t get her out of Las Vegas. She’s there all the time, she goes to the shows and she loves it. She’s 88 years old.
I would just say, ‘Let’s talk. Let me tell you what it’s like to run a company of 68,000 men and women who come from every possible background, every possible religion, every possible country, every possible race and what kind of careers they’ve made for themselves, the monies they’ve made working in this industry, how they’ve given back to the community. Let’s talk about specifically what you’re concerned about, which would be addictive behavior, crime. Let’s get into it and be very clear about what the concerns are so that I can address them.’ …
We do not want to be where we are not wanted. Certainly, it just requires some education. I think more often than not there will be people that no level of discussion will change their point of view. I celebrate that. I really do. But we look at in a holistic way, we think many folks we’ve learned before it certainly happened in Maryland where you have the very strong mega black churches. (MGM is building a $1.4 billion casino resort in Prince George’s County, Md.) They wanted to know what this meant for their men and women and what it meant for their community.
At the end of the day it’s about jobs, it’s about careers, it’s about providing funding for some of the concerns that people might have. Say addictive behavior. It’s here. Gaming addiction is here (in Georgia). But [treatment] is just not being funded. Providing mechanisms to get support for the folks who need it, and really demystifying what it means to be a gaming company with over 3,000 different kinds of jobs.
— Edited for length and clarity.
MGM Resorts International
Notable properties: MGM Grand, Aria, Bellagio and Monte Carlo in Las Vegas, MGM Grand Detroit and MGM Macau
U.S. properties under development: MGM National Harbor near Washington, D.C., MGM Springfield in Springfield, Mass.
2015 financial results: $9.2 billion in revenue, $447.7 million loss attributable to MGM Resorts
CEO: Jim Murren