Casino not right for riverfront

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tis the season to be jolly. In that spirit, and as a new resident of Natchez, I attended the lighting of the Christmas tree on Main Street. After enjoying the tree’s holiday splendor, the gathered crowd moved on to another holiday tradition: the lighting of the seasonal decorations along the bluff.

The riverfront decorations as a backdrop, the sounds of Christmas carols and children running all around transported me to a time I had only seen captured in books or movies, where the sense of community and small town America family values were the order of the day. Instantly, I recalled the reasons why Natchez is now my home.

Days later, I attended a nearly four-hour long presentation to the board of aldermen by two competing groups looking to construct a casino-based development on the prime piece of real estate named Roth Hill. Although I am new in town it does not take a Natchez insider to realize this is a city that needs jobs; and I commend our aldermen for wanting to bring them in expeditiously. But quick solutions to long-term problems are not always the best approach.

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As a youngster in New York City, I remember the hullabaloo surrounding casino development in neighboring Atlantic City, N.J. Perceived as the cure to all the city’s social ills, New Jersey voters in 1976 approved casino gambling. Thirty years have passed and, while I have not fully researched their economic impact, in the Atlantic City of today the stark contrast between the casino-developed areas and the adjacent impoverished neighborhoods is obvious to the plain eye. The image of Atlantic City as a popular beach destination for families is long gone. Today, as it was when I was growing up, it mainly is considered “for adults only.”

Unlike Atlantic City, Baltimore, Md., has experienced sustained growth and development without the aid of casinos. Efforts to redevelop the downtown area led to a revitalization of the Inner Harbor. Most notable in the development of the Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium, is one of Maryland’s largest tourist destinations and a favorite of families on any given Sunday. The steady expansion of the Baltimore skyline continues and along the waterfront ample space remains for children to expend their boundless energy. All in all, Baltimore created countless new jobs with a balanced mix of activities and entertainment for all ages and stayed away from the label “for adults only.”

As has been the case with Silver Street, I can’t help think that by building a casino on Roth Hill, the riverfront will cease to be a gathering point for the entire community or considered a suitable place for family activities. An entire sector of our citizenry will be barred from enjoying our naturally beautiful window to the Mississippi as young people are cut off from visiting the area, and that joyful atmosphere created by the presence of children at Christmas time will forever be transformed.

Natchez is unique in many ways; its culture, its history and its ability to preserve architecturally rich building structures. Not unique, however, is its need to develop a long-term plan for job creation and sustained economic growth. But is constructing a casino on Roth Hill our only option? A casino need not be surrounded by outstanding natural beauty in order to be successful.

If we are prepared to put a casino on Roth Hill, we also must be prepared to tell our children that Roth Hill is off limits because our grown-up imagination is so severely limited that building a casino there is all we can think of as the way of the future and perhaps secure employment for when they become adults.

Unless we demand more of ourselves now and make a concerted effort to explore other options for Roth Hill, we will fail in stressing the importance of long-term planning and vision to our young and forego the right to expect much more from those we are counting on to be our future.

Analisa Therrien is a new Natchez resident.