TUSKEGEE, Ala. — A Sept. 30 ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court calling for the end to electronic gaming in Macon and Lowndes Counties has residents concerned for their community’s future.
State Capital reporter Maddie Biertempfel spoke with those in Macon County about what the closure of VictoryLand Casino would mean for them.
The Tuskegee Repertory Theatre is one of about 60 charities that receives funding from VictoryLand Casino off I-85 in Shorter, Alabama.
Whether Founder and Theater Director Dyann Robinson has a fully funded production budget hangs in the balance.
“I can’t plan this next season until I know whether I’ve got some money,” Robinson said.
Robinson writes the plays the theater performs — mostly historical dramas with a focus on Tuskegee history.
She says her theater receives about $25,000 a year from VictoryLand. It’s one of dozens of organizations whose services could face cutbacks if the casino closes.
“These are organizations that deal with the arts, that deal with social needs, that deal with housing needs, all kinds of things that people need to live beautifully,” Robinson said.
The South East Alabama Self-Help Association is another organization that benefits.
SEASHA offers affordable housing for the elderly and vulnerable, as well as other services that President Clyde Windsor says may disappear without financial support from the casino.
“Christmas gifts and Thanksgiving dinners, and that kind of stuff. All that kind of stuff would be either reduced or would actually maybe go away,” Windsor said.
Students could be impacted, too.
Macon County Board of Education Educational Director Melvin Lowe oversees the Career and Technical Education Center in Tuskegee.
He says VictoryLand provides their largest source of local revenue, and without it, they could lose personnel, extracurricular resources and infrastructure for expansion.
“If there’s a term for more than tremendous, that would be the impact it would have,” Lowe said.
At the core of the argument brought up again and again by those in Macon County is fairness. They passed a constitutional amendment in 2003 allowing bingo.
“What they want to do is say that this is a gambling issue. No, this is much bigger than gaming,” Tuskegee City Councilman Johnny Ford said. “This is a voting rights issue and a civil rights issue.”
Ford is also a former state lawmaker. He proposed the amendment he says voters knew would allow for “all types” of bingo when they voted for it nearly two decades ago.
He says the issue transcends VictoryLand, and the County will do what it can to keep the casino open.
“We will stand in the gate, and they will have to march over us to close down this casino,” Ford said.
But Alabama’s Constitution prohibits gambling, and despite repeated efforts over the decades, state lawmakers haven’t changed that.
The State Supreme Court ruled that although Macon County’s amendment allows bingo, those electronic machines don’t qualify as bingo.
The ruling reads, in part: “The defendants have no right to engage in, and, thus, cannot be harmed by being enjoined from continuing in, an illegal enterprise.”
The court defined bingo in the 2009 ruling Barber v. Cornerstone Cmty. Outreach, Inc as a game that includes elements of human interaction using physical cards and announcing when one’s won.
“It’s taken us almost five years to get to the point to be able to validate what we’ve been saying all along, is that under the current law of Alabama, there is no such thing as electronic bingo. These are in fact slot machines and slot machines are illegal under Alabama law,” Attorney General Steve Marshall said.
The ruling sides with the state’s argument that the casino is a public nuisance, and people are harmed by living somewhere that doesn’t enforce the laws.
Marshall says he’s seen firsthand the damage casinos can do to a community — calling illegal gambling a “menace to public health, morals, safety and welfare” in a statement.
“In one of these counties at just a local convenience store, someone came up and talked about how they believe that families were being harmed when they saw what they described as child support being spent for gambling and that those losses went away from the kids who desperately needed the money,” Marshall said.
While many in Macon County expressed concerns this decision unfairly targets majority-Black communities, the Attorney General has filed five lawsuits since 2017 to curb illegal gambling in majority-white counties, too — including Houston and Morgan Counties.
For now, Macon and Lowndes Counties Courts have been ordered to permanently ban gambling operations within 30 days of their unanimous ruling on Sept. 30, 2022.
Since then, VictoryLand lawyers have asked the court for a rehearing. President and CEO of the casino Lewis Benefield said in a statement they’re hopeful the court will rescind its opinion, saying:
“Regardless of the Court’s decision, VictoryLand is committed to the people of Macon County and Alabama and will remain open.”
As the County awaits the Court’s decision, and as local leaders like Councilman Ford ask the Department of Justice to intervene, Dyann Robinson hasn’t given up hope.
“We haven’t let down on Victoryland,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s theater has been operating since 1991, but she says without the funding from VictoryLand, they may have to severely limit the productions they can offer to the community.
Gov. Kay Ivey was asked for comment on the court’s ruling, and she said she thinks the issue of gambling should be left up to a vote of the people.