Originally created 01/06/02

Officials dismiss border war risk



AIKEN - About 200 miles south of Aiken on U.S. Highway 1, just beyond the St. Marys River, sits the Country Store near Hilliard, Fla.

The convenience store is one of four stores on the Georgia-Florida border that greets travelers on the highway that runs from Key West to Fort Kent, Maine.

When Eva Mae Smith started the store in 1988, she had customers who bought Florida Lottery tickets in a regular and often outlandish fashion.

"I had one man play $1,100 when he came down," she said, describing one of her Georgia customers.

But when Georgia kicked off its lottery in 1994, ticket sales at the Country Store slacked off, Mrs. Smith said.

"When the Georgia Lottery came in, they quit coming," she said.

Mrs. Smith expects the same thing to happen to stores in Georgia when South Carolina's lottery begins Monday.

The competition between the Georgia Lottery - one of the most successful in the nation - and the South Carolina lottery will begin in less than 24 hours.

Officials on both sides of the Savannah River are downplaying any impending battle for bucks between the two states.

"I don't see a war with Georgia," said John C.B. Smith, the chairman of the South Carolina Education Lottery Commission. "I just see us providing a product for South Carolinians that (they) want and that they have previously been going to Georgia to get."

Rebecca Paul, the director of the Georgia Lottery and the original director of the Florida Lottery, also doesn't expect a war.

The Georgia Lottery didn't slow Florida Lottery sales much when it started in 1994 - mainly because there are no major cities on the Georgia-Florida line, Ms. Paul said.

Florida lost about 10 percent of sales in Georgia border counties the month after Georgia's games started, according to Leo DiBenigno, the assistant secretary of public affairs for the Florida Lottery.

Sales rebounded after that.

When former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller began campaigning for a state lottery, he cited the dollars going south as one of the reasons to vote it in.

Georgia went on to break the start-up record of $658 million set by Florida in 1988 with $1.1 billion in its first year. That same year, the Florida Lottery made $2.1 billion.

During the two-month lag between the introduction of Georgia's scratch-off games and its numbers games, Georgians continued to play Florida's jackpot games, Mr. DiBenigno said.

South Carolina players likely will do the same, he said.

If South Carolina wants to beat Georgia's start-up record, it has a tough fight ahead.

Georgia hoped to get about $65 per capita at the start of its lottery, the average at that time, Ms. Paul said.

If South Carolina did that, it would make $260 million - only a quarter of Georgia's record.

South Carolina's expectations don't have to be that high to begin and remain successful, Mr. DiBenigno said.

"Their expectations are different with a lower population, but there is no reason it's going to bode poorly for South Carolina," he said.

And South Carolina could make up some of those dollars by looking north.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, who is pushing for the games in his state, estimated in October that residents will spend about $100 million annually on the South Carolina lottery.

Horry County, which borders North Carolina, had the largest number of the 1,700 licensed retailers approved as of Dec. 8, with 138 outlets.

McCormick County, which borders Georgia, had the lowest number of retailers with two.

South Carolina continues to approve retailers' applications on a daily basis. Officials say they have 4,100 applications.

In the nine counties that border Georgia, 494 retailers have applied, and in the nine counties that border North Carolina, 1,243 retailers have applied.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.