ATLANTA -- Delaware provides the inspiration for a $1 billion lottery gambling complex in Norcross, and the project's backers are betting that the small state's success will help convince officials in Georgia to roll the dice.
Developer Dan O'Leary has a contract with Delaware casino company Dover Downs to operate his proposed video lottery resort in Norcross. Several Gwinnett County officials have already visited Delaware to scope out the hotel and casino there. And Delaware politicians have briefed lawmakers in Atlanta on the casino's impact there.
"Economically, this has been nothing but a success story. I've been proud of what we've been able to do," former Dover Mayor James Hutchison told lawmakers at a January committee hearing. "I'm not saying we don't have issues. But when you work together and have control, you can solve those issues."
O'Leary has a long way to go before he gets approval to build the Norcross complex. But he's betting that Delaware casino supporters make a good impression on the Georgia powerbrokers he hopes will green-=light his project.
A lot is riding on the proposal. He's invested more than eight years in trying to bring video lottery terminals to Georgia, and he's signed a contract to buy 122 acres near a busy highway where he plans to build a towering hotel, a spacious theater and a game floor with 7,500 video lottery terminals.
The terminals, which resemble video slot machines, would be owned and regulated by the state lottery and could funnel $350 million each year into the struggling HOPE scholarship program, O'Leary said. He estimates his complex would attract 5 million visitors a year and create thousands of new jobs in metro Atlanta.
Lottery officials haven't weighed in on the proposal yet and Gov. Nathan Deal has signaled he's against expanding gambling in Georgia. But O'Leary said his video lottery proposal won't expand gambling because it's already permitted under state law.
O'Leary's bid hinges on his contract with Dover Downs to operate and develop the facility. Dover Downs chief executive Ed Sutor said it would be his company's first out-of-state venture, but he said the firm is ready to expand. He said two separate investment banks, which he wouldn't name, are ready to finance the bid.
"You already have the lottery. This is just a different form," Sutor said. "It's no different than a scratch-off ticket that has instant payoff. We're not garish. We're not neon. We're not outrageous. We're classy and careful."
Video lottery terminals were approved by Delaware lawmakers in the mid-1990s in hopes of saving the state's struggling horse racing industry. The terminals have pumped more than $2.8 billion into state coffers since 1996, Richard Cathcart, a former GOP leader of the Delaware House, told Georgia lawmakers at a January meeting.
Gambling in Delaware has expanded since the terminals were first approved. Dover Downs now offers a limited sports book, Las Vegas-style table games as well as thousands of the terminals. O'Leary, who is careful not to label his proposal as a casino, said he has no plans to push for an expansion of gambling in Georgia.
Since its opening, Dover Downs has attracted a mostly female, slightly older crowd. The average age of Dover Downs' customers is 55, Sutor said, and many of the casino's offerings are targeted to that audience.
"We're not going after the dregs. We're not trying to cash someone's welfare check," Sutor said. "We have a safe, clean and fun facility. Think about what's important to a 55-year-old female? Safety, cleanliness and service. And that's what we try to focus on."
Several Gwinnett County officials, including Charlotte Nash, who chairs the county commission, said they were intrigued by a recent visit to Dover Downs. Chuck Warbington of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District said he was surprised to find the facility didn't fit the mold of a typical casino.
"There's no glitz, there's no glamour. It just looks like a very nice-looking building," he said. "With all the connotations that come with a casino or gaming facility, you've got to do your own investigation."
Even with the backing of local officials, O'Leary has a tough sell. Conservative opponents who fear gambling can increase crime and erode family values have vowed to fight the project. The Christian Coalition of Georgia is already urging Gov. Nathan Deal to block it, and other opponents could surface in the statehouse.
Although O'Leary may not need legislative support, he will need the backing of the state lottery board, whose members are appointed by Deal. Lottery officials, who wouldn't comment on the proposal, told lawmakers at the January meeting they are running out of options to boost revenues.
"We don't ever stop trying to add new things but I'm not sure we can ever meet the demand doing what we're doing currently," said Margaret DeFrancisco, the Georgia Lottery's chief executive. "We won't stop. I promise you. We turn ourselves inside out trying to do new things ... but we're about at the apex."