Hutchinson Island, a river island north of downtown Savannah, Georgia, once played host as one of the busiest containerization cargo ports in the world, but lately it has caught the attention of state legislators for the purpose of making it into a gambling mecca. The idea was recently floated at a meeting of the Savannah City Council after one Alderman asked about rumors of the move, and explaining that he thought it would be a “horrible idea.”
Despite this concern, State Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah, said that he expects to introduce legislation next year to legalize gambling on the island in a move to generate jobs and revenue for the state. The legislation was originally introduced by state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah reports Savanna local news.
Stephens continued by saying that the decision should go to residents in the form of a referendum. Stephens, who did not attend the meeting, said later he did not believe legislation needed to be introduced since Georgia’s constitution already allows gambling through the Georgia Lottery.
The Georgia Lottery’s board just needs to extend lottery options beyond scratch-off cards and numbers games to slot machines, Stephens said. Parameters would be put in place to restrict the casinos to Hutchinson and other potential tourism destinations, he said.
Like current lottery related sales, Stephens said, the revenue from the machines would go to Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program. He said he would consider legislation for a referendum but preferred not to have to wait until late next year for the casinos to become a reality.
“I am absolutely convinced it would be an explosion of growth,” Stephens said.
The effort is not supported by the Savannah Harbor Associates, which is planning a mixed-use development east of The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, said John Cay, who is part of the joint venture that also includes Batson Cook Development Co. and CSX Realty Development. “It’s inconsistent with the vision of what we want to do on the island,” Cay said.
In a more democratic approach, Mayor Edna Jackson said she thought the gambling issue should be left to residents to decide.
Jackson and Savannah city staffers have been taking steps to accommodate development plans on Hutchinson since Chatham County officials made a failed attempt earlier this year to get state lawmakers’ support for the de-annexation of the island from the city limits.
As part of its legislative agenda, the city is seeking state funding for the estimated $14 million extension of the Hutchinson riverwalk around the harbor east of the Westin. The extension would feature a marina adjacent to Savannah Harbor Associate’s planned mixed-use development on east side of the channel.
“That needs to happen before we do anything,” Cay said. The city has also prioritized the construction of a fire and police station on the island.