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HOW WOULD THE CHIPS FALL

It is Josh Marshall's job to collect boarding passes and help make the passengers feel welcome.

"May Lady Luck shine on you," he tells each one Thursday evening, just before they step on to the shrill, windy tarmac at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Seventy people are boarding a jet for the short flight to Biloxi, Miss., a city of 47,000 on the Gulf of Mexico that is fast becoming the casino gambling capital of the South, thanks in large part to Pinellas County.

Of the 40 U.S. metropolitan areas that have charter service to Biloxi for gambling trips, St. Petersburg/Clearwater is among the top five. Each month, thousands of Pinellas residents, most of them retirees, travel to Biloxi by bus and plane.

The trend is a testament both to how well casinos draw and to what seems Pinellas County's thirst for them.

It's also worth noting this weekend as a statewide drive gets under way to place a pro-casino measure on the November ballot.

A group called Proposition for Limited Casinos is proposing a measure that would change Florida's Constitution to allow privately owned casinos to operate at each of 30 licensed parimutuel facilities in Florida and at several other sites selected by the Legislature.

Under the proposal, Pinellas' only casino would be at Derby Lane, the St. Petersburg greyhound racing track. There also would be a casino at Tampa Bay Downs, which is in Hillsborough County but next to Oldsmar.

In addition, Pinellas would be a candidate for one of seven stand-alone casinos, said Pat Roberts, a Tallahassee lobbyist who heads the group.

The group is billing its proposal as an alternative to the unregulated and untaxed casinos that they say are certain to be developed soon by the Seminole Indians.

Others argue that casinos in Florida are inevitable because of competition from neighboring states and an erosion of traditional fears that casinos breed immorality and lawlessness.

"Over two-thirds of the people who are registered voters in Florida have been to casinos. Almost 70 percent have played the Lotto," Roberts said. "From looking at that research, the moral issue is not the issue it was 20 years ago.

"I think (casinos) are coming to Florida whether Indian or otherwise. The goal of our proposition is to keep them very limited in number and in size so that our state doesn't get overrun by them. We don't want them everywhere."

That's the statewide perspective. But how would casino gambling affect Pinellas County?

Bad for bingo?

"It would be devastating to charity bingo," said Frank M. George, president of the Florida Bingo Association and operator of three bingo centers in Pinellas.

The association estimates that commercial bingo operations raise more than $1-million a year for Pinellas charities. Already, George said, there are "more places to play bingo in Pinellas County than there are people to support them."

Bud Strawn, president of the Pinellas County Non-Profit Charities Bingo Association, predicted a different result for the 40 charities that conduct bingo games themselves.

He likened the small bingo operations to "a neighborhood bar, where everybody knows your name." Loyalty to those games is high, he said. "We wouldn't lose five people" to casinos.

For one charity, the Deaf Service Center, the arrival of casinos would "knock us out of the bingo business," executive director Jerry Conner said. The center operates its own bingo hall, which brings in about $75,000 a year.

Without that money, it would have to cut services to its 5,600 clients, Conner said.

"Bingo players are gamblers," Conner said. "They'll go wherever they think they can earn the most amount of money. I guess I would, too."

Conner said he took an informal poll of volunteers and players at the center's bingo hall.

They said they wouldn't vote for casinos but would patronize them if the measure passed. They also said they probably would return to bingo after trying casinos for a few months.

Even so, Conner said a short-lived drop in players would mean the end of bingo for his organization.

Roberts discounts the threat to bingo.

"They may see some erosion, but it won't be a substantial erosion," he said. "The concerns raised to me are more from people who are already in the business who don't want competition."

Indeed, the $1-million for charity raised by Pinellas commercial bingo operators is relatively small when compared with the estimated $25-million in charitable contributions raised by other means.

Bettors and ships

Bingo operators say they haven't been affected at all by a handful of floating casinos that operate along the Pinellas coast, including two newly opened cruise ships in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.

The boats pale in comparison to what would be vast, Las Vegas-style gaming rooms of up to 75,000 square feet, they say.

So different are the two that the boats would not compete _ nor would they want to, said Molly Kolokithas, a co-owner of Mr. Lucky, a riverboat casino that opened two weeks ago in Tarpon Springs.

Patrons are offered a buffet, Greek music and belly dancers. The gambling begins in international water.

Kolokithas said she made a trek to the Biloxi casinos and didn't like the scene. "You can take your paycheck in there and literally cash it at the cage and walk out with no rent, no groceries, no nothing," she said. "When you put in a land-based casino, what are we offering them? Another place to cash a paycheck?

"If you want to come out on the Mr. Lucky, you plan ahead for it. It's not the same. . . . We offer it as entertainment. We don't have high stakes. You can't lose your shirt."

The down side

Don Seaton is torn.

He was raised in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where his parents owned a motel near the casinos. When he was a teacher there, his students included parents who took turns on shifts that kept casinos open 24 hours a day. Their kids went unsupervised.

In general, he saw the seamy side of casino life.

Yet today, as a Clearwater Beach resort owner and a board member of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and president of the Florida Hotel and Motel Association, Seaton sees some wisdom in allowing casinos to operate in Florida.

As more and more states allow them and as casinos promote themselves more heavily as family destinations, Seaton fears the worst if Florida rejects casino gambling.

"I think it is going to draw away tourists," he said.

He sees hoteliers in other states trying unsuccessfully to compete with unregulated, untaxed casino hotels on Indian reservations. He recently visited Mississippi and saw a booming casino trade on the river in Vicksburg. And he has traveled to Las Vegas, where he saw an entire floor above a casino devoted to virtual reality games for the children of gamblers.

"It was jammed with kids," he said.

The big picture, as families turn to casinos for their vacations, is of a drain on Orlando's theme parks, he said. Many of those families take side trips to Pinellas beaches.

"I'm starting to believe there's a number of reasons why (casinos) should be considered or investigated" in Florida, Seaton said.

Any casino plan must be enacted carefully, he said.

In Pinellas, at least, no organized opposition to the constitutional amendment proposal has surfaced.

But it's early.

"I'm sure we'll be discussing it in the near future," said Tom Tramel, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which opposed a casino amendment in 1986.

"We're already No. 1 in crime," he said. "We just feel like casino gambling could afford an opportunity for illegal activity. . . . We just feel like we've got enough."

Among the oft-mentioned side-effects of casinos are prostitution, homelessness, theft and the specter of working-class people spending much more than they can afford.

Organized crime also is a social ill often ascribed to gaming, although casino executives insist that element of the business is now a fiction. They liken themselves to Fortune 500 companies, and their bottom lines put them in that league.

But Tramel contends: "For whatever reason, there is that segment of society that are attracted to (casinos) for less than honorable reasons."

Gambling in the '90s

Even so, public opposition to casinos appears to have waned for several reasons. The trend has been evident for 50 years, says William R. Eadington, an economics professor and gaming expert at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In a paper published in November, Eadington concluded:

"Moral arguments, which in the past had been most strongly put forward by churches and government bodies, have suffered partly because of the diminishing authority such institutions carry in comparison to previous times, and partly because many churches and governments themselves have become actively involved _ through charitable gambling, church bingo and lotteries _ in the delivery of gambling services."

Compared with previous generations, he says, "the attitudes of the general public do not rank gambling as much of an immoral activity in the 1990s."

Indeed, no one is worried in the quiet north Pinellas city of Oldsmar, where a large casino could be developed at neighboring Tampa Bay Downs if voters approve the amendment.

"I don't think the people who frequent casinos have one eye and horns," said Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Provenzano. "I don't think you're going to get any degradation of the quality of life."

"Our time to play'

Pat Roberts and Vey Weaver are on the same side, but don't necessarily see eye to eye.

Roberts, of Proposition for Limited Casinos, thinks the statewide measure would pass with about 55 percent of the vote, including an "overwhelming" show of support from Pinellas voters.

Weaver, vice president and general manager of Derby Lane, is not so sure.

"It could really go either way," he said, citing a poll conducted for the Florida division of the American Greyhound Track Operators Association. It showed a sampling of 700 Floridians divided evenly over the casino issue, he said.

Weaver also said he doesn't agree with the popular notion that casino gambling is inevitable. A federal appeals judge has denied a claim that would allow the Seminole Indians to open casinos, but also said the matter should be decided by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

Many people, including Roberts, interpret that to mean the Seminoles will have casino gambling soon.

Weaver notes that Babbitt has said he's in no hurry to make a decision that Congress clearly did not intend for him to make. Florida's Constitution specifically forbids casino gambling, he said, which gives the state "a stronger, more defensible position (against casinos) than almost any other state in the country."

Weaver said his family has been in greyhound racing for 69 years, and he's content to keep the tradition going without casinos.

He also has written Roberts a check to help cover the cost of the campaign. That's so he can "be a player" if the amendment passes.

"We've never been a casino before," he said. "If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right."

Some don't think he should get the chance.

Casinos belong on the beaches, not in "run-down" parimutuel facilities, said Roy Kaplan, a gambling expert, sociologist and adjunct professor at the University of South Florida.

"Make it a high-class place and regulate it carefully," said Kaplan, who advised New York officials when they considered casinos in the late 1970s. Not enough study has gone into the current proposal in Florida, he said.

Still, casino gambling is inevitable in Florida, he said, because surrounding states have allowed it, because the Indians appear close to getting it and because "the fact that people like to gamble is a reality."

It is quite real to William and Dorothy Geib, a retired Palm Harbor couple who were on last Thursday's flight to Biloxi.

It was their fourth trip to that city, but both said they would gamble at Pinellas casinos if given the chance.

"It's our time to play," Mrs. Geib said. "Who knows when the Lord's going to call you?"

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