Austin @ Large: Vice, Vice Baby!
Why stop at gambling? Bring on sex, drugs, and smokestacks
I'd like to think that, despite the lavish play, the Statesman's real reaction to the Great Casino Plan was similar to mine -- but I'm not sure you'd want to read a page of "laughing like a hyena, followed by palpable disgust," either here or there (something like "ha-ha-ha-HA-HA-snort-ha-ha-expletive-deleted-retch"). Pity poor Steven Scheibal, the Statesman's City Hall reporter, who had to treat this gassy effusion as if it were real news. It would take all week to explain all the ways why the casino project is, um, not real news. (Or, in Will Wynn's words, "so far outside the realm of possibility as to make the city's discussions moot.") It is more likely that Saddam Hussein will quit Baghdad this week, take holy orders, devote himself to weaving, and craft Easter baskets for Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld.
Remember that Texas went to great lengths to shut down the one legal urban casino in the state -- the Tigua Indians' Speaking Rock complex in El Paso. Before this scheme broke, only two casino bills had been filed at the Lege, one allowing Speaking Rock to reopen (filed by our own Rep. Terry Keel) and one to convert the Astrodome into a casino, a typical Ron Wilson publicity stunt that, for what it's worth, only applies to that one venue. This week, Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis filed the mammoth SB 507, which would allow up to 24 land-based Nevada-level casinos to open throughout Texas -- assuming the citizens voted to so amend the state constitution.
A Pile of Craps
The gulf between the status quo and SB 507 -- which closely follows the script laid out by the casino's backers -- is just one obstacle. Others include a restive City Hall, a flood-prone Waller Creek corridor, an unsympathetic neighborhood, and the need for several elections. Even the owners of the putative casino site -- Perry Lorenz and Robert Knight -- are at best skeptical, if not openly hostile, to a gambling plan. And would-be mayor Wynn speaks, I'm sure, for many when he says, "I would have to be convinced as to the cultural tie that makes gambling such an obvious use in downtown Austin." (Let me say for the record that, unlike Wynn, who claims to not even play the lottery, I actually like gambling. But I do not live in Las Vegas for a reason.)
So why are we talking about this? Because wannabe casino impresario Barry Keenan has enlisted the estimable support of former Mayor Bruce Todd and lawyer/powerbroker Pete Winstead, along with the PR firm co-owned by Todd's wife, Elizabeth Christian, to spend their expensive time making it rain on this pile of craps. Remind me to never again believe a word Todd or Winstead say when they say they love Austin and are committed to its betterment. They should be ashamed of themselves. And for this they are called "visionaries." Where urban planning is concerned, casino gambling is the last refuge of scoundrels -- a sure-fire signal that you've run out of sound ideas.
The casino scheme makes those of us, like Lorenz and Wynn and me, who've advocated for the Waller Creek tunnel -- as I did in this space just last week -- look uncomfortably like idiots. I was already lukewarm about Todd and Winstead's campaign, earlier this month, to redirect $25 million in bonds, approved in 1998 to build the flood-control project, to instead help finish the Long Center for the Performing Arts. (The City Council may vote next week to put this transfer on the May 3 ballot.) The dynamic duo did not let on that they had a Waller Creek plan up their sleeves. Now that the other tacky shoe has dropped, I'm tempted to oppose that plan on principle. (Casino backers say the $440 million price tag for the project includes some sort of tunnel-like investment in flood control.)
Drowning Waller Creek
My support for the tunnel, and redevelopment of the Waller Creek corridor, is to create out of what is now a near-wasteland, a high-quality urban space -- whether "natural" or "architectural" in character -- that is uniquely reflective of Austin. (Downtown Austin is surrounded on three sides by water. Let's start using it.) And where local flavor is concerned, casinos -- which are all exactly the same, everywhere in the world -- are no better than Starbucks.
As much as people fear a "creekwalk" -- thinking it a new frontline in the Disneyfication of America's downtowns -- a casino district would be even worse. Again, look at Speaking Rock, which gave a nice gloss to the Tigua lands, which thus stood out in high relief against the poverty of El Paso's Lower Valley. Likewise in East St. Louis, which is still one of America's sadder urban places, or in Biloxi and Gulfport, which six blocks inland from the "floating" casinos look like, well, Mississippi. Except with more pawnshops.
In the environs of Waller Creek -- both up the Red River strip and east of the interstate -- these are not abstract comparisons. Hundreds of people live on the streets (literally) around Waller Creek -- and in the parks, under the bridges, and so on -- and the adjoining neighborhoods have a long history of wrangling with social ills magnified by ill-considered development. A Disneyfied creekwalk, to use a worst-case scenario, could gentrify working-class neighborhoods, infringe upon the open-and-free shores of Town Lake, and leave social-service providers in a pinch. But a casino down the street from (among other landmarks) the Salvation Army and Caritas and Austin Baptist Chapel soup kitchen ... well, you finish the thought. That's social equity for you! What a great statement to make to, and about, Austin's neediest people! I'm so proud of Bruce Todd.
Let Them Eat Chips
Though I agree with the Statesman's view of gambling as an economic strategy, quick bucks and low-skill jobs are not themselves bad things; that's why I'm untroubled by incentives for the Convention Center hotel. But how many lives ruined by gambling, corruption scandals, wasted urban spaces that could be great, and dollars thrown into slots that could have been spent at local businesses does it take to offset the quick bucks and low-skill jobs? Not many.
I may be cynical, but not nearly as cynical as the Todd/Winstead posse. If now is the time for gambling, then why is now not the time for legalizing the sex and drug trades, both arguably victimless, neither of which I exactly object to on principle? (We'll put the brothel in Bruce Todd's neighborhood, the opium den in Winstead's.) If this is the quality of the ideas that drive the City of Ideas, bring on the smokestacks.