March 28, 2003 – The Casino Control Commission's chair, Eileen Petersen, had some strong words for the Legislature and the Turnbull administration on Thursday as the commission discussed a mandated but unfunded program to help compulsive gamblers, the also-mandated construction by Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino of 50 additional hotel rooms, and video lottery and Internet gaming.
The V.I. Alliance for Responsible Gaming, an entity created to address gamblers' problems, last met on Jan. 15, commissioner member Lloyd McAlpine said, but further action is suspended until funding can be secured. By law, 1 percent of casino revenues is to fund an effort to address gambling addiction.
McAlpine said the administration promised a check for $119,000 within a few days of the last meeting, to include the 1 percent allocation. "To our amazement and surprise, a check was received, but it was for a totally different purpose," he said.
The alliance wrote a letter to the Finance Department requesting the money, McAlpine said, and is still waiting for a response. The alliance's monthly meetings have been suspended until funding is received, he said.
"This is a legitimate organization composed of professional volunteers willing and ready to commence their task," McAlpine said. "However, the powers that be don't see it as a priority."
He said the only help available locally now for people who with gambling problems is a weekly meeting of Gamblers Anonymous.
"I suggest we contact the senators and solicit their assistance in releasing the funds," Petersen said, adding that the lawmakers constantly "rant and rave" about problem gambling and should be willing to help.
She noted that the Senate has failed to pass legislation that would prevent people identified as problem gamblers from gaming at the casino.
Bernie Burkholder, a director of Grapetree Shores Inc., which owns the casino and resort, told the commission that compulsive gambling must be addressed. "I can't imagine a lack of funding at this point for such an important issue," he said.
"They [the administration] ask what we're doing about problem gambling, then they don't cooperate. They haven't put their money where their mouths are," Petersen said.
The government also has been lax in meeting its mandate to provide a hospitality training school for residents wishing to work in the casino industry. "The program has been dormant for years," commission member Imelda Dizon said. She said it was in operation for only three months, in 2000, to coincide with the opening of the Divi, the territory's first, and to date only, casino.
"The Divi takes up the slack with its on-site training school," Dizon said. The casino school offers training for jobs at the facility, as well as training in alcohol and compulsive-gambling awareness, she said.
"Divi is proud of what it has done, but we certainly have needs" regarding hospitality training, Burkholder said.
Petersen said she will attempt to identify available grants for hospitality training to get the government's training program back off the ground.
As far as the Divi hotel expansion issue, the resort was to have completed the addition of 50 more guest rooms as of last year. However, low occupancy of the existing facilities prompted the commission to allow postponement of that undertaking.
While the purpose of the law permitting construction of the casino was to boost St. Croix tourism by offering more hotel rooms, "If they can't fill the 150 rooms they've got now," Petersen said, "how are they going to fill 50 more?"
Noting that some members of the Legislature have been quick to criticize the resort for falling behind on the room expansion, Petersen said: "Divi came in here when no one else was coming in. What other developer was willing to put in $25 million to St. Croix? I'm sick of the criticizing and not offering something productive."
The currently controversial video lottery gaming issue finds the commission staunchly on the side of opponents. Since Dec. 23, video lottery terminals have been legal in the St. Thomas-St. John district only, but opposition to them has been strongest on St. Croix, where casino gaming advocates see them as competition.
A major criticism of Petersen and her commission colleagues is that VLT gaming is unregulated — leaving room for use by minors, fraud, and a perception of the territory's handling of legalized gambling that could deter investors in future St. Croix casinos.
Petersen accused the Senate of having been "inconsistent" in its handling of proposed Internet gaming versus video lottery gambling. The 24th Legislature legalized Internet gaming and ordered the commission to come up with regulations for it. The result — a lengthy document — has been submitted to and approved by the Attorney General's Office and is awaiting the governor's signature.
The senators "who passed a bill asking for regulation in Internet gaming are the same senators who passed an unregulated bill in the middle of the night" legalizing video lottery operations, Petersen said.
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