ATLANTA — A developer is betting that Georgia residents are ready for a lottery gambling facility, and he’s unveiled plans to build a sprawling new complex near Atlanta that he hopes can give a jolt to the state’s economy and infuse the popular HOPE Scholarship program with much-needed cash.
Dan O’Leary said Tuesday that he wants to build a $1 billion entertainment complex near Norcross that includes a towering hotel, a spacious theater and a game floor with 7,500 video lottery machines.
Gambling proposals have emerged in recent years in states hard-hit by the economic downturn. It’s been a tough sell in Georgia, where conservative groups and legislators fear it could erode family values and boost crime and divorce.
O’Leary said the development could funnel $350 million each year to the struggling scholarship program.
“Our project will completely solve the HOPE problem and will help Georgia in a huge way. It can start building back up HOPE’s reserves, send more kids to college, send more kids to pre-kindergarten – and we can do it today,” he said.
O’Leary had a plan in 2009 to transform Underground Atlanta, the downtown attraction he operates, into a casino with restaurants, shops and a hotel. The project was scuttled amid opposition from then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.
O’Leary said his new project won’t need legislative approval because it involves video terminals already permitted under state law. But it will need the backing of the Georgia Lottery Board, which would regulate the machines, and whose members are appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Records obtained through the state’s sunshine laws indicate O’Leary met with Deal and his chief of staff, Chris Riley, on Jan. 9, the first day of the legislative session. O’Leary said he presented details of the project to Deal at the meeting.
Deal’s office said only that the governor holds hundreds of meetings each year to hear ideas and proposals. In an earlier interview Tuesday, Deal said he generally doesn’t think Georgia is “compatible with a casino-type environment.”
“That’s a discussion that we have not had with the lottery board,” he said when asked about his views on video lottery terminals. “I have some concerns about it, obviously. I do not support the casino-type concept. I don’t think that is good for our state. And I’ve also said I do not support other forms of gambling that some have suggested as a revenue measure.”
O’Leary, who is careful not to call his project a casino, said it wouldn’t expand gambling in Georgia. State law bans Las Vegas-style card games such as poker, but the state lottery charter doesn’t specifically outlaw video lottery terminals. The Georgia attorney general’s office said in a March 2010 letter that the terminals are “generally permitted” under state law.
The lottery board said it hasn’t received the proposal and couldn’t comment. Chairman James Braswell has said he believes his agency has the legal authority to add the machines, but he has said it couldn’t do so without a broader discussion with politicians and the public.
O’Leary said he has a letter of intent with Dover Downs, a company that operates a hotel and casino with video lottery terminals in Delaware, to develop the project. The Delaware Lottery says it has raised $2 billion from video lottery terminals at Dover Downs and other casinos since 1995. That facility now includes Las Vegas-style games like poker, a sports book and horse racing. O’Leary said he has no plans to expand into other areas of gambling.
All told, O’Leary said the complex is estimated to cost about $1 billion, create 2,500 new jobs, generate 1,000 additional construction jobs and set off a new boom that could revitalize the downtrodden area where it will be built. He said the first phase can be up and running within 18 months.
He estimates his project would generate $700 million in annual revenue, half of which would go to the lottery.