Gambling with our future?
I’m one of those people who actually grew up in Tacoma. I can remember the bustling, vital downtown, as it was before the department stores all moved out to the mall. I can remember shopping at Woolworth’s with my grandmother, where she’d always buy me a small bag of Spanish peanuts. I can remember going to the Rhodes Brother’s store, and People’s and Sears and the Bon Marche. But then the stores all moved to the mall, and the downtown died and became an urban wasteland.
I have vivid memories of the 20 years following the flight to the malls. Seemingly, the area was written off. It had outlived its usefulness. Much of the downtown was so sad and lonely, considered fit only for vagrants and bums. Building after building was razed in the name of urban renewal, only to leave a trail of debris-laden pits as the poignant reminder of the vitality that had once existed. The picture that sticks most clearly in my mind are the homeless people covered with newspapers, sleeping huddled in doorways, and the cold wind blowing down empty streets lined with decrepit, boarded-up storefronts. A ghost town. My town.
Since the sixties, the downtown’s gone through numerous incarnations, all designed to revitalize the area. There was the pedestrian mall on Broadway, for instance. There were the escalators between streets. It went on and on. But the outcome of most all of these different plans to jump-start the re-development had one thread in common: they were unequivocal flops.
Time passed. Then the Pantages was refurbished, and the Rialto. The Tacoma Actor’s Guild Theater was built. Voila! A Theater District was born. Signs of life began to return to the Ninth and Broadway neighborhood.
More recently, the Tacoma Children’s Museum, then a tiny establishment located on Court C, took a bold step and expanded into it’s present building on Broadway. The location is just two doors down from LeRoy Jewelers, one of the few hold-out remnants remaining from the faded, glory-days of the downtown’s past.
And then now, with the neighborhood finally coming back into its own, developers are proposing to site a gambling casino in-between LeRoy Jewelers and the Children’s Museum.
A gambling casino? Exactly how did this come about?
Well, two years ago, the legislature passed laws legalizing so-called Nevada-style house-banked card-rooms. The difference between a house-banked card-room and it’s predecessors is that rather than renting chairs or tables (where the player pays a set fee to the card-room), with house-banked gambling, you actually play against the house - just as you would at Caesar’s Palace or any other Las Vegas casino.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come to the realization that running a house-banked card-room would be like owning your own gold mine. And so since the change in the law, there’s been a flood of applications for the licenses – 84 state-wide, nine of which are proposed for Pierce County.
Alarmed at the tide of new applicants, and unsure of the issues surrounding the casinos, the City of Tacoma wisely placed a moratorium on new applications effective April 8, 1999. The purpose was to allow the city, working together with representatives from the various interest groups, time to study the zoning codes to see if new ordinances specific to mini-casinos were needed.
One possibility it’s reported the city may look at, will be to segregate the mini-casinos into one certain area or areas – an approach that would have merit.
Either way, it makes good sense to study the issues, because we must look before we leap. In the frenzied rush towards promoting economic development for the downtown area, there seems to have been an unofficial credo of “anything is better than nothing,” adopted in years past.
But history suggests this is not a valid approach to the downtown’s revitalization.
At present, Ninth and Broadway is unique in that it’s the one single area of downtown that has family and children-oriented activities. The area has gone to great lengths to build up and sustain that family-oriented image, trying to blot-out the bad old past from people’s minds. They’ve succeeded in raising people’s confidence of the area so they’ll feel comfortable taking their kids to see a play, or to the Children’s Museum - without having to worry about getting mugged, or involved in a drunken brawl.
However well-conceived or operated, having a gambling casino next to the Children’s Museum just doesn’t make good sense. A casino’s use simply isn’t compatible with other, more family-oriented businesses, and the potential for problems out-weighs any possible good.
The current Ninth and Broadway neighborhood should be viewed as a very fragile eco-system. My memories of the bad-old downtown as it was for so many years, are not unique. As fragile as the life of the Ninth and Broadway neighborhood is, any untoward incidents might very likely be the death knell for some of the current businesses, like the Children’s Museum. I sincerely hope that does not happen.