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North Charleston mayor gambles on casino boats

City looking for fresh revenue

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After a visit to Savannah last week, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey says that there's a 70 percent chance that the city will soon allow a casino boat to sail out of the Navy Yard. If the chips stack up right, the Lowcountry could see a small tourism-related boost.

According to Joe Marinelli, president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, of the 6.9 million overnight visitors to our sister city to the south, 2 percent (138,000) come solely for the casino gambling experience. However, the number of day trippers — those who don't book a hotel room for the night — could be much higher.

Marinelli notes that he frequently drives past the parking lot servicing the Diamond Casino's Sun Cruise VII boat — his home is near where the ship docks — and the majority of cars in the lot are from the five-county area surrounding Chatham County, where Savannah is located. The Sun Cruise VII is docked at the base of the Bull River, miles from downtown.

Interestingly, the Savannah CVB does not actively promote the casino gambling experience, in part because there's only one game in town. The other reason has more to do with Savannah's unique Southern charm. "We're a bit more focused on cultural and heritage, architecture, romance, the standard marketing message that you would expect from Savannah or a place like Savannah or Charleston," Marinelli says.

Considering how Mayor Summey wants to revitalize the Navy Yard — not to mention bring in money to the city during these dark economic times — there is little doubt that the city of North Charleston will make a very big deal about the casino operation.

"Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is and the cuts that the state has given all local governments, we're looking for every source of revenue we can bring into the community, plus enhance the tourism trade with jobs as well," Summey says.

Summey believes a casino boat will attract the folks that already come to the area. "This is an alternative thing for them to do. I think that the folks that are [visiting Savannah] are also utilizing the facility. While it may not be a direct hotel-motel stay, it's just one of those things that add to the amenities that draw people to the area," Summey says. "It's going to help the entire market, as far as hospitality, whether it be hotel-motel or food and beverage."

As far as those over-night visitors who come to North Charleston specifically for the casino boat, Summey believes those visitors will largely stay at one of the numerous hotels surrounding the North Charleston Convention Center, but he also sees a possible hotel at the Navy Yard in the future.

Last week, Summey met with officials from Diamond, and he and North Charleston City Council members took a cruise on the Sun Cruise VII.

Of course, the casino boat gamble is not without peril. Savannah's current casino operation is only the latest in a series of failures over the last decade. In fact, Diamond's Sun Cruise VII boat, formerly known as the Midnight Gambler II, is the fifth casino vessel to call the Georgia city home since 1993. According to the Savannah Morning News, four previous attempts failed for a number of reasons, but the 90-minute-trip from River Street in Savannah to international waters was a cited as a problem for at least two of the boats. Two other vessels set sail far closer to the sea; one operation stayed in business for five years, while the other suspended operations after seven months.

According to Ryan Johnson, a spokesman for the city of North Charleston, the Navy Yard is not nearly as far from the open sea — and international waters — as previous Savannah-based casino boats. The Navy Yard is approximately eight miles from the ocean, and the entire trip out to sea is expected to take 45 minutes to an hour. During that time, Johnson says, passengers will likely either dine or be offered entertainment.

Summey and company are prepared to take on the naysayers. "The state of South Carolina is a gambling state. It's just controlled by the state with the lottery," the mayor says. "This is a form of entertainment. People have a choice whether they gamble or not. A lot of people just go out and have dinner and enjoy the music and dance, what have you, and come back in. They don't even play the machines. That's a choice people have."

The mayor adds that when they visited the Diamond casino, the overwhelming majority of folks on the Sun Cruise VII were over 50.

Not surprisingly, Summey has one vocal supporter: WTMA's Richard Todd of The Morning Buzz. A long-time advocate for changing South Carolina's out-dated gaming laws — currently, it's illegal to play any games involving cards and dice, from Go Fish to Monopoly — Todd notes that Little River, a town just north of Myrtle Beach, currently offers gaming and "a crack hasn't formed in the earth to swallow us up."

Todd also says that the money generated by a casino boat operation will help North Charleston. "This is a way that people will willingly line up to give their money to the government," Todd says. "They're obviously going to have private companies who are going to run these things, but the government is going to make money on dockage fees and taxes. There's going to be job creation and a stimulus to the economy and the areas where they have casino boats. And it's actually going to attract people to North Charleston, and God knows that's a hard thing to do."

Of course, Todd says, there will be those who will vehemently oppose the city council's moves to approve a casino boat business, but we've dealt with the type before. "The same people who came out in 1994 opposing beer and wine on Sundays will be the same people who oppose this," he says. "And there will be those people who will oppose it because they say there will be a rise in crime."

He adds, "But when you're looking for new streams of revenue, and when North Charleston is trying to tap into the waterfront and reclaim the waterfront, this is a great idea for North Charleston because you damn well know that Charleston will never do it. Joe Riley will never do that."

Summey hopes to have an ordinance ready for city council in a couple of months. He expects the casino boat to be approved and for operations to begin by the end of the year. According to the mayor, each casino boat — yes, there may be more than one — will likely depart twice a day on cruises that will last an estimated four to five hours.

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