News Articles

Grassroots effort turns back gambling

LLOYD, Fla. (BP)–A Southern Baptist pastor and Sunday School teacher are credited with launching a grassroots effort to turn back plans for a horseracing track that ultimately would have brought the gambling industry to their rural Florida community.

George Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lloyd, about 20 miles east of Tallahassee, and David Hall, a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist, were up against what Smith called “some great odds” and powerful pro-gambling lawyers.

But the Jefferson County commissioners voted 4-1 after a public hearing to deny a permit for the development of a quarter horse racetrack on a 117-acre plot of land along Interstate 10. The $16.5 million project would have included the track and a 125,000-square-foot building for a card room, lounge, restaurant and 12-lane bowling alley.

At a seven-hour public hearing that began Jan. 17, 88 people signed up and nearly 50 spoke about the proposal, with the remainder yielding their time to others. About 200 stayed until the end at 1:30 a.m., while the crowd at times swelled to more than 300.

A week before, about the same number crowded the chamber for a meeting of the county’s planning commission, which recorded a 5-4 vote against recommending the proposal to the commission. It still moved forward with a staff recommendation.

Hall had presented a slide show to fellow church members less than two weeks before the county commissioners’ meeting, alerting them to the environmental concerns and infrastructure problems associated with the proposed development plan.

One key environmental concern, which people outside Hall’s circle of influence also noted, was that runoff from the horse track complex would flow into the protected wetlands and other sinkholes, harming the community’s water supply. He also cited insufficient roads to handle an increase in traffic as well as safety concerns related to a lack of fire and police support.

Hall spoke at his local Baptist association’s regularly scheduled meeting to educate pastors about the proposal and galvanize support for seeing the permit denied.

At the hearing, David Romanik, a prominent south Florida gaming law attorney and the mastermind behind the Lloyd track, teamed up with Marc Dunbar, a leading gaming and pari-mutuel attorney. They were joined by advocates including Ken Smith, a former state representative who wanted to sell his Jefferson County property for the proposed development.

Moderating was Felix “Skeet” Joyner, chairman of the county commission and a member of First Baptist Church in Lloyd, who at the outset of the discussion noted what he said could be a deficiency in the permit application. He recommended the paperwork be returned to the planning department for completion but was outvoted by the other commissioners.

Joyner, with a collective 17 years experience on the planning commission and county commission, said he had never seen an application processed so quickly.

Romanik, who is also a legislative lobbyist for two gaming interests and a racetrack, tried to convince the commission that he wanted to build the quarter horse complex simply to get back “to the roots of racing.”

“I think the county fair atmosphere is important in all of this because I think that’s where racing started in America — that’s really what led to the development of the private race tracks,” Romanik said, adding that he was “just interested in the horse racing part of this business” rather than in pari-mutuel wagering, which includes betting on horse and dog races.

Romanik also said his proposal would create about 60 new jobs for the community, would increase business near the track and would add to local entertainment options.

John Wesley, pastor of a Pentecostal church in the county, said he was not against horses but was not in favor of building “another saloon, card room or watering hole in our community.”

Speaking of the new jobs promised for the kids of the community, Wesley said wryly to loud applause: “I guess we need the school board to put into our curriculum bartending and card dealing so our kids will have a future in our county.”

Kari Beck, owner of Ten Oaks Farm which borders the proposed development, said she moved to the area because of its “pristine environment” and was not interested in dealing with the noise and environmental harm the track would bring to the community.

Smith, the landowner who wants to see his property developed, spoke out on what he considers his rights.

“…[W]hen I buy land I should be granted the same privileges to own that land and to dispose of that land or to do on that land anything I want to so long as it is legal,” Smith said.

Luther Pickle, an employee of the Jefferson County Kennel Club, noted that the county already has a small greyhound dog track and its business would be harmed by a new horse track coming to town.

Lisa Alden, a horse owner, spoke up and said she was suspicious of the developers’ plans because she didn’t see the usual facilities for horses in the plans.

“We love quarter horses,” she said. “We don’t love gambling.”

Commissioner Junior Tuten told Romanik that if he had asked for a pari-mutuel instead of a horse track, he might have supported him, but Tuten questioned whether a person who was into horse racing could seriously consider only having six races a year as proposed.

“I don’t say that to embarrass anybody here,” Tuten said. “I have friends on both sides of this aisle, and I am really disappointed that this item is trying to be hid behind a horseracing facility.”

In his closing remarks, Joyner emphasized he would not vote in favor of the track because, in his opinion, the application was not complete and there were a number of environmental concerns. He went on to say that he had been told by attorneys that he ought not speak on gambling per se at the meeting but was going to anyway because of personal experience relating to the matter. He told about how he placed a lottery machine in one of his businesses years ago and ended up having two longtime employees start stealing from him. He had to fire them.

“I never will have another one of them,” Joyner said of the lottery machines. “I do not want gambling in my community to destroy my community, so I’m going to vote against it.”

After the vote, Romanik told a local newspaper he didn’t know whether his company would appeal the decision.

In retrospect, Hall, the Sunday School teacher, told the Florida Baptist Witness he felt like the racetrack “was a done deal,” and Smith said the outcome was “way beyond what we even dreamed of.” They credited the community’s voice and “a lot of prayer” for the victory.

The Florida Baptist Convention’s legislative consultant, Bill Bunkley, said he believes the story of Jefferson County is a good example of what happens when citizens become informed and engage in the governmental process to maintain community standards.

“These outside gambling interests totally underestimated Pastor Smith and Layman Hall and because of their leadership and doing the right thing, the commission in this community made a courageous and right decision,” Bunkley said.

Bunkley said a local community has a right to set their own standards, and even though the county has a dog track, the county at large may feel one pari-mutuel facility is enough.

“I wish other communities would be able to readily see, as this community has, the disadvantages and untrue assertions that are made time and again by pro-gambling advocates,” Bunkley said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan