The current OFS property as shown from above where Dan O'Leary proposed to build a mixed-used entertainment complex.
ATLANTA — The fate of Dan O’Leary’s dream project — the billion-dollar, multi-use facility in Norcross that many have branded a casino — may rest in the hands of Gov. Nathan Deal after all.
O’Leary made a presentation to the Georgia Lottery Corporation’s board of directors Thursday in Atlanta, pitching the proposed facility and its video lottery terminals as both “an entertaining way of distributing a scratch-off ticket” and “the only silver bullet that I’m aware of for fully funding both pre-K and the HOPE scholarship now and for generations to come.”
But lottery board chairman Jimmy Braswell said the group would want support from the state government before even considering the matter, calling it a “public policy decision.”
“It’s obviously very controversial, but we believe it’s a public policy decision that a seven-member, appointed board should not unilaterally decide on its own,” Braswell said. “I think we would need some degree of support from the governor and the leadership.”
The facility — which would also include a hotel, restaurants and shops — would be located near Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard and rely on the video lottery terminals (or VLTs) owned and operated by the Georgia Lottery. It is believed that its founding legislation would allow the lottery, if it wanted, to establish video machines without state approval.
Given Braswell’s comments Thursday, though, it seems unlikely to do so.
Gov. Deal has been outspoken in his anti-gambling stance in the past. Republican state Rep. Ron Stephens, on the other hand, has said dozens of lawmakers have supported his resolution urging the lottery board to approve VLTs.
Stephens believes it’s a local control issue that should be decided by Gwinnett County commissioners and not a state organization.
O’Leary invited the lottery board to the Gwinnett site for a “full-blown” presentation. Questioned after Tuesday’s meeting, though, Braswell said he didn’t anticipate doing so “anytime soon.”
“As long as the opposition to this concept seems to be as strong as it is right now, I don’t see the purpose of putting it on our agenda,” he said, adding that the board’s next scheduled meeting isn’t until July.
O’Leary went public with his plans in February, and has been quick to clarify that the facility will not be a Las Vegas-style casino. Current plans call for 7,500 VLTs, a 5,000-seat performance venue, restaurants and retail situated around a 1,500-room hotel.
Recently, Georgia football star Herschel Walker has said he would open a restaurant at the site.
It’s been proposed that the lottery terminals would bring $350 million annually — a 40 percent increase in revenue — to the HOPE scholarship, which is mired in economic woes. Those projections have been verified through an independent study, Braswell said.
Still, O’Leary’s facility has its detractors.
Toby Tatum, a spokesman for the Norcross-based Georgia Family Council, also gave a short presentation to the lottery board Thursday. Citing increased crime and divorce rates in gambling communities like Atlantic City, N.J., he said his organization recognized the good VLTs would do for the HOPE scholarship but worried about other social ramifications of a “casino.”
“We also recognize one simple truth,” Tatum said, “that the ends do not justify the means.”
“Is this what we want for Norcross? Is this what we want from Georgia?” he added later. “This is a total departure from how the Georgia Lottery has operated to date.”
That part nobody’s denying, but the description of O’Leary’s projected facility is a point of contention. Most against it dub it a casino, but O’Leary has tried to steer clear of that perception. He calls it simply a “mixed-use project that will include a VLT gaming floor.”
Ed Sutor is the president and CEO of the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Delaware, which is similar to the facility proposed here. His group has a contract with O’Leary to operate the Gwinnett site if it comes to fruition.
“We’re no different than a convenience store that has a machine (that sells lottery tickets),” Sutor said at Thursday’s meeting. “The lottery selects that location, puts a machine in and they sell tickets and the owner gets a commission. Our store just happens to be a little bit bigger with a little bit more amenities.”
If O’Leary gets the go-ahead from the lottery board, the project will also have to make its way through Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners. Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has said that the proposal is “certainly worth considering.”
O’Leary acknowledged they probably exist, but said he hasn’t heard directly from anyone in Gwinnett opposed to the facility.
He was optimistic about the commissioners’ role in the process.
“I certainly cannot speak on their behalf, but I think it’s fair to say that they’re at least intrigued, and I know that they have been spending a lot of time and effort in doing due diligence on our project,” O’Leary said. “And I’m just hopeful that the fact that they continue to do due diligence is a sign that they’re still interested.”
Because of pre-existing buildings on the site, construction would take about 18 months.
At A Glance
Johns Creek businessman Dan O’Leary has proposed a billion-dollar gaming facility in Norcross. He believes the multi-purpose center — which would include a hotel, restaurants and retail locations — would bring many positives to Gwinnett County:
• 2,500 permanent jobs once completed
• 1,000 temporary construction jobs
• $350 million annually to the Georgia Lottery’s HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs
• 5 million annual visitors
• Economic development around the planned site
• Land donated for a nearby transit station