Casino will only benefit city if we make it

Published 10:50 am Monday, January 12, 2009

By By Tray Smith
Tuesday’s opening of the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel has generated excitement throughout town and the greater Gulf Coast region. Area citizens are amazed that such an establishment has been constructed in Atmore. Like manna from Heaven, it seems, people have come to openly expect benefits from Wind Creek to wash away our other problems and open up a bright future.
Wind Creek will not, however, relieve our problems. It will make them more severe. Wind Creek does indeed offer a remarkable opportunity to transform our community and join with Brewton and neighboring Baldwin County cities in establishing a corridor of wonderful towns throughout southeast Alabama.
However, Wind Creek also greatly increases the demand for effective local governance, housing options, good schools, a solid infrastructure and functioning civic institutions. Unless we as a community are willing to step up and meet these challenges, the wonderful opportunity the Tribe has given us will be lost. As a newfound center of tourist activity, lost opportunities are much more detrimental. Bad roads, for instance, are no longer a simple inconvenience; they are instead a competitive disadvantage that will cost us businesses, residents and visitors.
Already, some of our organizations, like the Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce and Escambia County Middle School, have responded to this challenge. Last year the chamber held forums to address inadequacies in the community, a process that should continue as we asses where we are and where we would like to go. ECMS has been transformed into a true 21st century education center, where teachers, administrators and students are all motivated by data-driven performance standards.
Yet, we still have shortcomings. Several recent headlines have referred to the growing level of violence in the community- whether reporting car break-ins or arson. In spite of repeated requests from students, parents, teachers and school administrators, local authorities have still not put a full time resource officer on campus at Escambia County High School. After much effort restoring downtown, we now have a very nice set of buildings but Main Street is becoming increasingly jammed with thru traffic and new roads are needed to relieve the area of people heading to other destinations. Despite having over four schools in town, none of our students take the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that are widely offered in classrooms throughout the country. Those programs allow students to challenge themselves to a rigorous curriculum while in high school, earn college credit and graduate prepared for to pursue a post-secondary education.
These minor incidences highlight a much larger problem: our city has always operated like a small town, where neighborhood problems never reached the level of severity. Now, our small town must operate like a city, maintaining our peaceful way of life while supporting the services and programs necessary to attract new and bustling industries.
Of course, the new casino is not the only opportunity Atmore has to spur growth. In October, I visited the sugar cane experiment being researched in the city’s newly annexed property north of I-65. Here in Atmore, agriculture experts are literally planting the seeds to our energy future and hope to eventually supply a substantial amount of Air Force fuel with their products. If Mobile is fortunate enough to hold onto the Air Force tanker contract, a tremendous number of opportunities in aerospace will come our way. Already, the ThyssenKrupp steel mill in north Mobile County is set to pump billions of dollars into the region’s economy. If the city is able to successfully use the Rivercane property to feed off of these developments and increased casino traffic, an unprecedented expansion in employment, population, and prosperity will occur.
Events will not unfold this favorably unless we take the proper steps to plan and prepare for our future. Atmore must no longer assign certain responsibilities to the school board, others to the county commission and still more to the city council, Tribe and chamber. Instead, all facets of our community must operate together, seamlessly moving us into the future. Already, a precedent exists for such an operation. A few years ago, a number of citizens banded together and created a strategic plan highlighting a multitude of goals and objectives for local government agencies and community organizations.
However, the strategic plan died when its leadership changed and no one implemented its recommendations. Obviously, the same plan would be somewhat obsolete now, but with some revisions relevant to the current circumstances and environment, it could provide a framework for addressing the tasks currently at hand.
A few months ago, before the YMCA’s financial obstacles were alleviated, I read a front page story outlining the budgetary difficulties the organization faced as a result of the looming end of the Neal Trust. Just as sources of wealth in Brewton that have long fueled civic organizations in this county are drying up, Atmore is full of opportunities to generate prosperity. If we take advantage of those opportunities, our own wealth will be able to more than replace what we lose from Brewton foundations. Atmore will also have the added benefit of being known for its resort, not its prison.
That’s the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a former page in the U.S. House of Representatives. He can be reached at His column appears weekly.

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