n 2016, local businessman Bob Wright unveiled he wanted to bring a $200 million resort casino to Columbus should gambling be legalized. Legislation that would have started that process did not make it through the Georgia General Assembly in 2017, and efforts to revive the bill are likely to continue into 2020, the Ledger-Enquirer reports.
During a public meeting held Wednesday by the Georgia House Special Committee on Economic Growth as part of a statewide listening tour to gather input from constituents, Wright announced he still intends to develop an “upscale destination resort” along the Chattahoochee River in south Columbus.
The meeting, which took place in the packed council chambers, was centered on the possibility of legislation being introduced in the upcoming session of the General Assembly that would pave the way for sports betting, horse racing, and casinos being legalized in Georgia.
Wright said he wants to bring the casino to south Columbus because it is an area that “needs a lot of help” in terms of housing and jobs.
"It really needs an economic catalyst to really turn that part of our city around," Wright said. "We think the economic impact of a destination resort will have a tremendous effect on Columbus and our city as well as contribute to the HOPE Scholarship and other needs..."
Several citizens spoke before the committee, many with questions about the process and what legalization of gaming would mean for Columbus.
One citizen asked if any studies had been done regarding casinos being located near military bases, based on his experience as a soldier at Fort Benning 50 years ago. He said gambling had been a big issue among his fellow servicemen.
"I know a lot of people in the room can remember Phenix City in 1954 and the trouble we had with Fort Benning and Phenix City," he said.
Another citizen said he was in favor of the south Columbus area gaining jobs and a higher quality of life, but did not see a benefit to gambling.
“I’ve heard your facts but I do not see the quality of life and the moral integrity of the city rising with any form of gambling,” he said.
The economic growth committee was established this fall by House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and includes 15 members led by co-chairmen Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) and Ron Stephens (R-Savannah).
Powell spoke in favor of legalization in terms of the potential positive impact on the economy, and that he would like to see the state’s gaming revenue put toward the healthcare budget.
He said horse racing alone could mean a $1 billion-plus boost to Georgia’s economy.
Powell said legalization would require a constitutional amendment, which would be voted on by the citizens of Georgia. To get on the ballot a two-thirds majority vote in both the state House and Senate would be necessary.
Further legislation would include provisions as to where casinos could be located within the state, potentially keeping Columbus from being able to build a casino even if gambling is legal statewide. If approved by the voters, a gaming commission would regulate the gambling, Powell said, not just to collect taxes but to ensure the facilities are following state rules.
A second referendum would have to be held in individual counties to allow the people to decide if they wanted to allow sports betting, horse racing and casinos inside the county.
Columbus Council voted unanimously earlier this year in support of legislation that would make that vote possible.
District 7 Councilor Mimi Woodson spoke in favor of a casino in Columbus Wednesday, calling it a “game-changer.” Wright’s proposed project would be located in her district, along the riverfront between downtown and Fort Benning.
"No doubt this would create jobs and improve the quality of life for many people in District 7, throughout the city of Columbus and this region," Woodson said. "This is the perfect district for this proposed economic development."
If the process moves forward next year, a vote to amend the constitution could be expected on the November 2020 ballot.