Casinos are not the solution for rural North Carolina

Published August 17, 2023

By Alexander H. Jones

The history of economic development is littered with gimmicks. Then-Mayor Pat McCrory breathlessly plumped for the NASCAR Hall of Fame when it rolled into Charlotte, bring with it little but a hefty cost for the subsidizing city. Stadiums have been built across America no matter how many studies debunk the bogus promises of sports-team profiteers. But for all this legacy of failure, few dubious growth strategies threaten as many social repercussions as Phil Berger’s push to plant casinos in rural North Carolina.

The crisis that this gambit claims to address is undeniable in severity and scope. In most measures of social welfare, rural North Carolina badly lags the state’s urban cores and most of the exurbs. Fifty-one counties–over half of the state’s geographical units–are losing population even as North Carolina gains about a million people a decade overall. Distributionally, the inequity is even starker: Fifty percent of the state’s GDP growth over the last decade took place in Wake and Mecklenburg counties alone.

So Berger is correct to believe that rural N.C. deserves urgent attention. He errs, however, in seeking this remedy in the form of casinos. That’s because the economic benefit casinos purportedly bring to a state is in fact a mirage, and the pernicious side effects of commercialized gambling are manifold. Casino advocates are succumbing to the lure of easy solutions.

Most studies of the casino economy confirm the futility of relying on gambling for economic development. Casinos, they demonstrate, tend to suck in revenue without kicking it back out to the larger regional economy. They do not anchor an economy like a factory or a mine. But they do make the surrounding community a less desirable place to live. This squares with an intuitive inspection: Imagine thousands of tourists, mostly men, in a loose and drunken mood, and ask yourself how such a milieu is likely to affect quality of life.

It’s unrealistic, as Thomas Mills suggested, to believe that casinos will bring thousands of consumers into areas that have few other tourist attractions. To the extent that cities such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas have built an economy around gambling, they’ve done so by molding their entire communities into tourist traps, with casinos the central attraction. I suppose Lumberton or Rockingham County could, over generations, be reinvented as Vegas-style gambling meccas, but the more likely outcome would seem to be a kitschy, “South of the Border” disappointment. Regardless, the evidence remains that casinos will not redevelop the economy on their own, or even be an unalloyed good.

Rural North Carolina already suffers from more than enough social difficulty in the form of addiction, violence, and despair to justify leaving the fool’s gold of the casino economy on the table. The economic boon casinos would bring is thoroughly illusory. They are unlikely to attract enough customers to generate consequential consumption, and the transactions those people make at casinos will leave only a transient economic imprint in any case. Casinos are economic snake oil with nasty side effects, not the miracle drug their many champions in the legislature are marketing to people who desperately need help.