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West Memphis votes on electronic gaming.

A local referendum with big economic implications occurred this week in West Memphis.

Citizens voted on whether or not Southland Greyhound Park should be allowed to expand its electronic gaming options to allow "games of skill" such as video poker and re-spin slot machines. Results of the election were not available at press time.

"Video poker is basically the crack cocaine of the gambling world," says Bill Wheeler, executive director of Families First, the group leading the movement against the new machines. "It's fast-moving and addictive. The results of this expanded gambling will be as simple as ABC: addiction, bankruptcy, and crime."

But Barry Baldwin, Southland's general manager, sees things differently.

"We've had gambling here at Southland for 50 years," he says. "They refer to machine gambling. Well, I think that Tunica has quite a few machines, and that is less than an hour away. So if there are any social problems in this area, we have already paid the cost without reaping any benefit."

There was a time when Southland was one of the premier dog-race tracks in the nation. "All the best greyhounds would come to Southland every summer and go to Kirby Park in Florida for the winter," Baldwin says.

The arrival of Tunica casinos cut deeply into the park's success. "Before Tunica, our handle -- meaning the amount of money wagered -- was $212 million a year. Last year that number was less than $35 million," Baldwin says.

Southland commissioned two studies on the economic impact of the planned developments, one with the New Orleans firm TIG and another with the Chicago firm ERA.

"The studies show that we would bring in about 200 to 229 full-time jobs," says Robert McLarty, campaign manager for the Southland-backed Jobs for West Memphis Committee. "These are not minimum-wage jobs, either. They have salaries averaging around $30,000."

Wheeler points instead to gambling's negative economic impact, despite the revenue and jobs it brings. "For every dollar that comes into the city and county coffers, $1.57 will have to be paid in social costs," he says.

If the citizens of West Memphis vote to allow expanded electronic gaming, the Arkansas Racing Commission will decide which games are acceptable and how many the park will be allowed to add. The track is also planning on a $15 million to $18 million expansion if the vote is in their favor.


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