It makes no sense to use crime that followed gambling into Atlantic City 40 years ago as a reason to deny Florida destination casinos today.
Yet, anti-gambling groups continue to do it, continue to divert Floridians' attention away from the full story and all that's transpired in New Jersey since 1974. I want to make a few important points -- mostly with numbers -- and let you be the judge.
In 1974 the people of New Jersey overwhelmingly turned down a referendum to approve casino gaming by a 60 percent to 40 percent vote. A positive vote would have allowed any New Jersey county to approve casino gaming with a vote decided internally, by the individual counties.
Voters weren't so unhappy about casinos, according to surveys, they just didn't want them in their own backyard.
So, two years later, 57 percent of New Jersey voters said yes to casinos hoping they would fund education -- as long as they were restricted to the dying seaside resort of Atlantic City, which had a culture of social problems and needed an economic boost.
Gaming opponents never talk about quiet Biloxi, Miss., do you notice? They bring up Atlantic City when they need to frighten people. The Atlantic City of 40 years ago helps them paint a mental picture of degradation, mob influence, crime, compulsive gambling and traffic congestion.
Today, with the tough entry requirements to get a casino license, the idea of organized crime is absurd and, frankly, out of the question. And crime and traffic congestion have everything to do with new commerce, and really nothing to do with casino gambling.
In fact any kind of activity that meaningfully increases visitor totals will increase crime. That's because FBI crime statistics don't include visitors or commuting workers when reporting a community's violent- and property-crime numbers. It's the untold story in all this: A casino city like Atlantic City, with only 40,000 residents, sees crime increase as much as 300 percent -- but also goes from 4 million visitors before casinos to 35 million after.
Look at the effort to consider resort casinos in Florida and the Walt Disney Co.'s counter-effort to stop it, and compare some crime figures:
Crime is a much larger problem in Orlando, with all of its family attractions -- Disney World, Epcot, Sea World, Universal and more -- than it is even in Las Vegas, let alone Atlantic City.
I haven't seen the Florida Sheriffs Association's 2012 stats, but the latest data available to me from 2010 showed Orlando had a rate of 1,017.5 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared to Las Vegas' 893 per 100,000.
Henderson, Nev., part of Greater Las Vegas and a community with a number of its own casinos, had a violent-crime rate of only 205.5 per 100,000. Why so low, you ask? Because Henderson relies mostly on its own residents for gaming -- it doesn't have a crime rate exploded by an enormous number of visitors.
Let's not pick just on Orlando. Other Florida resort communities with higher violent-crime rates than Las Vegas are Daytona Beach, St. Petersburg, Fort Pierce, Miami, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Miami Beach and Pompano Beach.
As for per-100,000-resident property-crime rates, Orlando had 6,479.4, and Daytona Beach 7,272.2. Those numbers were twice Las Vegas' 3,051.3. And the Miami Beach property-crime rate was triple Vegas' at a whopping 9,936.3.
It's true, Atlantic City residents were 70 percent less likely to be victims before casinos than after. But the offsetting news is rarely reported: Cities approving a casino referendum can expect a substantial number of new jobs (52,000 in Atlantic City), significant construction, more tax revenues and out-of-state tourism; and in Massachusetts, a return of current resident spending from casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Florida native Steve Norton, a semiretired consultant in the casino industry, was involved in the startup of casino gaming in New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and Indiana, offering what he calls "different styles of gaming product to achieve each state's desired results."
"I have no horse in this race," Norton says, "and I believe No Casinos has every right to be morally opposed to casino gambling. But I do want Floridians to have the benefit of reliable facts when asked for their vote in a referendum."
Norton told me in an emailed statement, in his opinion -- and echoing some of the same statistics I mentioned above -- crime rates aren't the major issues in the casino resorts debate. "The real issues for Florida," he said, "should be new jobs (both construction- and resort-related), new investment in resort casinos, the net gain in state and local taxes, and most important of all, new tourists attracted by the combination of Florida's beaches and weather, combined with the sophistication of casino gaming."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.