Vegas touch in old port

Gambling: Casino boats strike an incongruous note in a 376-year-old Massachusetts fishing community.

October 11, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Massachusetts law is clear when it comes to casino gambling: It's prohibited.

And yet, smack in the middle of this historic harbor -- where boats are judged by how wave-beaten they are and men are judged by how many pounds of fish they haul to shore -- sits the Vegas Express. It's a flashy-looking creature with carpeting, a dance floor and "Wacky Winner" and "777 Blazing" slot machines.

Here is one casino industry answer to gambling restrictions: a floating casino. These boats carry blackjack tables, slots and gamblers with trusty sea legs three miles into international waters, where the casino companies believe their recreation is not subject to state jurisdiction.

Casino boats first arrived in Massachusetts last year and have brought a curious touch of Las Vegas to Gloucester, a 376-year-old fishing community where three of the boats dock. Gloucester bills itself as "America's oldest seaport" and is more notably home to the rusty vessels that hunt the seas for flounder, cod and haddock.

"I'd rather see a fish-processing plant here," said Vito Calomo, executive director of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission, as he stood on a dock staring at the Southern Elegance, a casino boat. "Gamblers, they go to the Indian reservations. I don't like it in my back yard. It's not fishing. And I'm for fishing."

"Cruises to nowhere" for gamblers began operating in Florida and have spread to South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, New York and now Massachusetts. The door opened for them in 1992, when a federal law allowing foreign ships to operate casinos was amended to allow U.S.-registered ships to have on-board gambling as well -- so long as they were in international waters.

The proliferation of these smaller casino boats has caught the interest of lawmakers up and down the East Coast. Many are dumbfounded that these vessels with flowing alcohol, mirrored walls and craps tables can park at their ports with impunity -- as long as the games don't begin until the boat chugs sufficiently offshore.

"Some states may want it and some may not, but let's fight it out in the state legislatures," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican. Wolf has introduced a bill that would amend the law so states would have to approve the industry before it arrives. "If something isn't done," he said, "you'll have cruises to nowhere coming out of Ocean City."

Gaming opponents in Maryland's Ocean City and other coastal resorts in the mid-Atlantic may have less to worry about than communities in New England. In July, a federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas ruled that a South Carolina law barring casinos pre-empted the federal law that allows the cruises.

Catherine Orleman, an assistant attorney general in Maryland and counsel for the Maryland Port Authority, said that nod to state gambling laws should hold for the region.

"We are comfortable that in this circuit, that is the law now," she said. Orleman added that the industry could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gloucester was not exactly up in arms in July 1998 when the 350-passenger Vegas Express sailed on its maiden voyage. Leisure Time Casinos and Resorts -- the Georgia outfit that owns the boat -- skillfully developed a cordial relationship with the community, sponsoring the local symphony and a seafood festival and donating money to buy shoes for the Gloucester High School football team.

The company pays a $3-per-person federal gambling tax and pays state sales tax on all on-board sales -- that is, until the boat crosses the three-mile line when it can sell tax-free. According to spokesman Jay Johnson, Leisure Time hired 86 percent of its 126 employees from the local community.

`Let a community decide'

Even Gloucester Mayor Bruce H. Tobey, an outspoken opponent of gambling, said he could swallow one casino boat if it was operated tastefully. It was when two other outfits moved into Gloucester that Tobey and many other residents became nervous they were becoming a magnet. The town and state, he said, should have some regulatory power over the gambling excursions.

"Just let a community decide for themselves what it wants to be," Tobey said. "We're a competent city of 30,000, and we'll figure it out. This is a seaport. You've got that harbor, and there's a strong emotional tie to the harbor. It's about fishing, cargo, people-moving and recreational boating, and all that has co-existed. This just brings a whole new slant to it."

The Vegas Express sails from a dock beside a rusty 105-foot trawler that makes for an odd fit with the Mercedes and Lexus luxury cars parked outside the casino boat's loading area. A billboard plastered with photos of gamblers in tuxedos and cocktail dresses proclaims Leisure Time "The Best Game in Town." The sign stands on Main Street near the Crow's Nest, a hangout for local fishermen who discuss how to resuscitate their struggling industry over Budweisers and lobster rolls.

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