By DIANE PHILLIPS
IF you grew up anywhere near the water tower in the heart of Nassau or just east of Chippingham, there is a sound that you will always identify with a group of men having fun the old-fashioned way. They didn’t have guns or knives or utter predictably ugly multi-syllabic words. They had dominoes and the sound was the clack-clack of tiles in a game that involves a combination of skill, strategy and yes, a dose of luck.
Whether it was the tiles of dominoes, the poker hands of would-be champions at casino poker match invitationals, football pools in the workplace or at Arawak Cay, or a chess game at a private club with a six-figure membership initiation fee, Bahamians have always loved to gamble. It may have something to do with the risk-taking that led to the country’s birth. Gaming is, after all, based on the premise of hope.
The genesis is less important than the reality and the reality is that The Bahamas has always been a gaming culture. We may have pretended otherwise, forbidding casinos by law and only granting licences to operators exempted from the law because we wanted the business they would bring to the resorts that housed their casinos.
Preventing Bahamians and those holding work permits or enjoying other legal status such as spousal permits from playing at those exempted-from-the-law casinos was one of the most blatantly prejudiced – and largely racial – offences ever directed at the majority of the Bahamian population. If they couldn’t get into casinos in their own country or benefit from the profits, Bahamians had their own way of continuing the gaming tradition. They would put money into a man’s hands who came around to the parking lot of the fanciest buildings in town to sell them numbers. He gave them a piece of paper with the numbers and they gave him their money and trust. It was a trade-off that seemed almost impossible to maintain. It was only a matter of time until businessmen like Craig Flowers and later Sebas Bastian and others recognized the potential of gaming and brought it into a modern world. They computerized it, brought sophistication and with the money the industry earned, invested it back into the economy.
The new style of gaming has had a few glitches, especially in how it was regularized. Those faults were not necessarily brought on by them but were primarily of the making of the previous government that felt pressured to ask the people what they thought of the gaming industry when all they had to do was amend legislation and policy.
Instead, they foolishly held a referendum. Voters, influenced by a very powerful ‘Just Say No’ campaign organized by the Bahamas Christian Council and others, said ‘No’, hoping to put an end to something that was already thriving. So the government, and specifically Minister of Tourism and Gaming Obie Wilchcombe, called the referendum a straw vote, proceeded to legalize the industry that had helped bring it into office and in a single swoop lost the trust of the Bahamian people.
We cannot turn back the clock and cancel the referendum that never needed to be held. But we can take a practical look at gaming today and what it has done and continues to contribute to the Bahamian economy.
Gaming, as Richard Coulson pointed out in his column on Monday, is one of the most significant and compliant contributors in the financial sector. Those who enter a building are asked for their passport and a utility bill or other identification before an account is set up. The interiors, at least of Island Luck, are attractive with TVs, screens and a pleasant atmosphere. Players are treated with respect, security is tight but not obnoxious, there is even a sense of being treated as a guest rather than being told you are not welcome here by a casino worker less than a mile away. We understand the popularity and yes, we worry about addiction. We know a professional woman who lost everything but her account was on her phone and we doubt she ever entered a gaming house.
Gaming is here to stay and so are the trickle down effects. Would all those who bought at Venetian West or Venito or other popular affordable communities with clubhouses, pools, playgrounds choose to move out, close down those complexes that were funded in part or whole by revenue from gaming? Do we not appreciate the beauty of the historic buildings that Craig Flowers restored just west of the Hilton?
Did we not celebrate the statue of Ronnie Butler that adorns the grounds covered in a grass called Cashmere, one of the prettiest sites along an otherwise largely higgly-piggly strip?
Get real, Bahamas. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into the Bahamian economy, thousands of jobs are created, dozens of new entrepreneurial opportunities are opening up because one very well-watched and highly regulated sector of the private economy is succeeding. We are a gaming people and gaming is here to stay.