The following remarks were delivered to the Springfield city council May 25, as the council prepared to consider a resolution to support bringing casino gambling to the city. After McGill and other citizens voiced opposition, the council did not proceed with a vote on the resolution.
We are considering whether a casino might be added for the good of this city. As one whose profession gives regular thought to what constitutes "the good," I have a few thoughts on this.
The first thing I would like us to consider is that gambling is an odd place to rest our hopes for growth, when gambling is just about the one industry we can accurately describe as totally economically unproductive. It does not produce anything, create anything, or add anything new to the economy. A factory, a restaurant, a farm, a building contractor, a software development firm, or any number of other businesses take resources and labor and construct something that didn't exist before, actually increasing the total amount of wealth in the economy. A casino does not create a single dollar of new value. It simply shuffles existing wealth from one set of hands to another.
Which rules it out immediately as an engine for true economic growth, but we still might do well to ask: "Which hands? Do we at least shuffle dollars into better places?"
In a time where we have become ever more aware of the problems of concentrated wealth, it seems to me peculiar that we would aim to relieve our economic problems by opening up a venture whose entire business model is to take wealth from the many, and redistribute it to the hands of just a few, while skimming the majority of it away altogether.
And who are the many whose money will be taken? We must look at this through a realistic lens. People are not going to travel from across the nation to gamble in Springfield, Illinois – or even across our own state. They won't come from the St. Louis metro area, because there is already a casino in Alton. They won't even come from Peoria; they have one right next door already, too. Two groups of patrons will spend their time in a Springfield casino.
One is people traveling here for some other reason – government, medicine or education, perhaps. Those people are going to look around for something to do at the end of the day. Do we want them spending their visitor dollars at restaurants, entertainment venues, and attractions owned and run by Springfield-area businesspersons? Do we want them spending their time and money on the cultural and historical sites unique to us here? Or would we prefer they bypass all of the native Springfield businesses and spend their money at an establishment owned by some out-of-state investment group that funnels most of those profits elsewhere?
The vast majority of people who will spend their time at the casino are the people of Springfield, Taylorville, Sherman, residents of this county and its immediate neighbors. When we siphon cash from the pockets of our own communities this isn't a net gain, especially when sending a large portion of it to far-off owners. This resolution has the stated purpose of "providing downtown economic development and job creation," but I don't see how. A casino that doesn't draw any real new tourism to town does not add to the revenues of other, nearby businesses. It competes with them. Except for parking garages and prostitutes, this won't help downtown businesses. It will serve as a replacement for them, dominating the local menu with some Las Vegas corporation's version of a horseshoe sandwich.
Nor will it help the residents. As I've pointed out, we're not going to fill a Springfield casino with movie stars and rich Wall Street bankers. It's going to be locals keeping this afloat. I don't know if you've ever looked at a map of where lottery tickets are sold, but I have, and it is illuminating. The highest sales are reliably in the lowest-income ZIP codes. This shouldn't surprise us. People who are the most stuck, economically, in the system we have, are the ones who most need a lucky break in life. We don't make the system better for them when we allow flashy operators to come in and feed them constant promises of lucky breaks after just one more pull of the slot machine in order to extract from them what little they already have.
This is not the helpful path it claims to be. It is not free money for the community; it is money from the community, and it comes at a cost. The cost is making the success of our economy dependent on persuading people to make economic decisions they cannot afford, while tearing away business from our own local entrepreneurs and producers.
I urge you to vote no and resist the temptation to set our city's hopes on this.
Trajan McGill is a resident of Rochester and an associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located in Springfield's Ward 5.