HomeGamblingAlabama gambling politics loom over legislative debate crucial to Spanish Fort project

Alabama gambling politics loom over legislative debate crucial to Spanish Fort project

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Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan hopes his city will be able to build a baseball complex someday soon on property adjacent to the Eastern Shore Centre, and he is counting on the approval of legislation geared toward generating revenues within its boundaries to help to do so.

But the legislation, viewed almost as non-controversial prior to Wednesday, almost got hung up in gambling and lottery-related politics that are animating the final days of the Alabama Legislature’s spring session.

The bill, SB327, would expand a quasi-governmental Capital Improvement Cooperative District to include properties near the Eastern Shore Centre. The city doesn’t own the property, but the legislation would allow for the properties to be acquired and placed into the district. And as part of the district, future revenues derived from licenses, fees and other revenue sources from developments within its boundaries can be used to pay for bonding that might be initiated to improve the area.

“It’s really important to my district and to the mayor of Spanish Fort,” said Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, who sponsored the legislation in the House.

Implied gambling references

Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smiths Station, grilled Simpson on the importance of the legislation for Spanish Fort and Baldwin County, in general. Some of his inquiries were off-topic, such as linking the OWA development in Foley to Spanish Fort’s interests in building a baseball complex. Other inquiries included 2021 references, and the lack of sports gambling.

And all of it had to do with the politics of lottery and gambling and a key “No” vote cast last week by Republican Sen. Chris Elliott of Josephine, on a constitutional amendment that would allow for an Aug. 20 special election. The election would then give voters the opportunity to decide of Alabama’s Constitution should be amending to legalize a paper lottery dedicated primarily to education and limited electronic casino gambling.

Blackshear was the House sponsor of legislation approved in a conference committee and ultimately passed out of the Alabama House before it came up a single vote short of passage in the Senate.

“Is it something you think the people should make a decision on that area?” Blackshear asked Simpson while on the House floor, a reference to a potential lack of a special election if gambling and lottery is not approved before the end of Thursday, the final day of the legislative session.

“Is it something the people should make a decision on in that area?” he added.

Replied Simpson, “I think we can get this done in this House.”

Blackshear countered, “Are there people who are against it? You think your entire area that needs this is behind this is 100 percent?”

Said Simpson, “I’ve had multiple conversations with the mayor of Spanish Fort over how important this is to the City of Spanish Fort.”

State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, and sponsor of a comprehensive ethics bill, attends the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at the State House in Montgomery, Ala.John Sharp

The gambling and lottery bill, as proposed, prohibited sports gambling. The seven casinos would be prohibited from having table games that use cards, dice, or a dealer.

“Walk me through Baldwin County itself,” Blackshear continued. “I could drive down and potentially drive by OWA (in Foley) and stop off and go around and go to the amusement park and the roller coaster. How does this affect this?”

Simpson said that OWA is near the Foley sports complex, which is geared toward sports tourism. He said that is similar to what Spanish Fort wants to do with a baseball complex next to the Eastern Shore Centre.

“We’re not betting on those sports are we?” Blackshear interjected.

“We are not betting on those sports,” Simpson said.

Blackshear also referenced the year 2021, which was the last time Alabama lawmakers voted on a gambling and lottery package that was approved out of the Senate. Elliott was a “Yes” vote at the time.

The back-and-forth continued until, ultimately, the legislation was voted on an 89-0 vote with 13 House members abstaining. Blackshear, who said he felt the legislation was a good bill, voted “Yes.”

Mayor’s reaction

Mike McMillan

Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan talks about the I-10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project following an Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Fairhope, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

McMillan, who said he was aware of the political gamesmanship on the legislation, said he was thankful for Simpson in his handling of the legislation and carrying it through the House.

“I thought it was dead duck on what I was hearing (about bills caught up in lottery and gambling politics),” McMillan said. “Kudos to Matt Simpson to pushing this forward. It would not have happened without him. This means so much to the city of the Spanish Fort.”

He added, “I knew there were some hurdles because of the politics. I’ll leave it at that. But I’m glad they recognized that this was not an issue other than helping the city of Spanish Fort accomplish a goal to take care of needs of the youth and our city.”

Elliott said he did not hear Blackshear’s comments. He said he was “just glad they got around to passing a good bill like this one.”

McMillan said the baseball complex project, and associated infrastructure work, is likely a few years away from happening. He said the complex could include anywhere from four to eight baseball diamonds.

He said the city doesn’t own the land, which is next to a bowling alley and is just east of the shopping center. The property, he said, is owned by representatives with the nearby Malbis plantation and only preliminary conversations have taken place on how to acquire it.

“It would not only take care of recreational needs, but we also have traffic concerns in that area,” McMillan said. He said the city would like to utilize the cooperative district to generate funding for improvements to U.S. 31, which is often saddled with traffic congestion near Rockwell Elementary School and at the entrance to the shopping center.

McMillan said the city’s youth leagues, which would benefit from the baseball complex, also include families from nearby cities.

“Our youth leagues here are not just Spanish Fort, but we got Bay Minette, Loxley, and Daphne playing in our leagues,” McMillan said. “We want to make sure every kid has a place to do these things.”

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