Underground Atlanta — a 12-acre retail and entertainment complex downtown — is like a phoenix, the mythical bird that symbolizes this city that rose from the ashes: Another incarnation is always rising.
The latest proposal for this longtime, often troubled Atlanta landmark is the most ambitious: Promoters want to spend $400 million turning Underground into a gleaming gambling edifice featuring 5,500 slot machine-like devices, a 29-story hotel, upscale restaurants and Vegas-style shows.
Getting approval for a casino in Georgia won't be easy: The state lottery, which provides college scholarships for Georgians, is the only legal form of gambling. Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, opposes gaming. Efforts to bring in everything from horse-racing to gaming tables have foundered.
Business partners Dan O'Leary and John Aderhold, however, think they can circumvent opposition. Gambling machines at Underground wouldn't be true slots, they say, but "video lottery terminals" managed by the state lottery. The machines look like slots but pay out at a predetermined rate so there's less random chance.
The lottery would get 50% of gross revenues from the machines. No legislative approval is required. The machines would require approval only from the Georgia Lottery Board, which has not yet considered the proposal.
"It's just a legal form of gambling now approved by the state," says O'Leary, 46, managing partner of Underground. "We can create a virtual casino experience, but they are video lottery terminals. The general public won't be able to tell the difference" between the terminals and slot machines.
O'Leary is selling the proposal as a way to pump an additional $200 million or more a year into the HOPE scholarship program. He says a revitalized Underground would generate 2,000 direct jobs and $2.8 billion a year in related tourism.
Thomas Grey, spokesman for StopPredatoryGambling.org doubts the economic benefits. "With the economy the way it is now, it's hard for government to argue that people should go gamble, instead of save and invest, pay down debt," he says.
A generation ago, Americans had to trek to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble legally. Today, Utah and Hawaii are the only states that have no form of legalized gambling.
As budget shortfalls hit statehouses and city halls, the lure of gaming is powerful for many politicians, says Boston College professor Richard McGowan, author of the 2008 book The Gambling Debate. "Right now states are really competing for revenue," he says. "Gambling seems like it's painless revenue. They figure, if they're already gambling, why shouldn't we keep our hand in it?"
Despite the wretched economy, state and local governments are finding staunch opposition to some gambling proposals. Among them:
• Etowah County, Ala. Former state Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore, who was ousted from the bench after defying a federal judge's order to remove a 5,200-pound Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the state judicial building in 2001, opposes a plan by the County Commission to allow "machine bingo."
• Vermont. The state auditor proposes putting a casino in Killington or other resort areas to generate funds for roads and bridges, but the Legislature has been cool to the idea.
• New Hampshire. Efforts to expand gambling by allowing slot machines at race tracks to generate jobs and revenue face a fight from the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.
A onetime hot spot
Underground Atlanta was the rocking center of downtown nightlife when it opened in 1969, offering restaurants, bars and nightclubs. It was a dark, funky place, a must-visit spot for tourists that evoked comparisons with New Orleans' Bourbon Street. By the late 1970s, subway construction had ripped out several blocks of clubs and parking; crime had soared. The place closed in 1980.
It reopened in 1989. Business plummeted in 1992 after the complex was damaged by rioting following the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. It has had ups and downs since.
Underground draws 6 million visitors a year. O'Leary says there's broad support for his proposal.