March 31, 2003 – Southland Gaming of the Virgin Islands, the company awarded a contract to install video lottery terminals in the territory, has embarked on a campaign to garner more public support for video lottery gambling in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
On Sunday, representatives set up shop at Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack to introduce horse racing fans to the gaming terminals. In addition to explaining the operations of two demonstration machines, they handed out T-shirts and sought signatures for a petition to let lawmakers know of public support for VLT's.
The petition drive is part of a month-old public relations campaign which also includes print newspaper advertising and guest appearances on radio talk shows.
Rosetta George of By George! Advertising, said the company set two of the machines up for the day at the track to give racing fans a chance to check them out for themselves. Most people in the territory don't know what the machines look like or how they work, she said.
George, who described herself as "a volunteer," said on Sunday that despite her efforts to talk up the subject at the race track, public reaction was largely apathetic. But she said some people she had spoken to at her church had told her they thought VLT's were "a great idea" if they provided a way to generate more revenue for the government from tourists.
Southland and VLT advocates say they will do just that. A banner at the entrance to the tent where the machines were on display Sunday read "Want $15 million a year? Support the V.I. Lottery. Support VLT's."
At one point, about 10 people sought shelter from the midday sun under the tent. The machines were set up for demonstration purposes only, George said, and not to take wagers or pay out to any winners. A few of the curious ventured up to try a game of electronic blackjack, but most of those present kept their attention on the action on the track.
By the end of Sunday, nearly 600 signatures were collected on the petition, mostly from spectators trackside, George said. Southland attorney Arturo Watlington Jr. said once 1,000 names are collected, the company will present the petition to the 25th Legislature, where a bill is pending to repeal legislation that took effect last December legalizing video lottery operations in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
Meanwhile, a number of video lottery opponents on St. Croix spent Saturday at a meeting where they enlisted the support of other community and business groups in lobbying for repeal of the law allowing the gaming machines. (See "St. Croix community coalition sets agenda".)
Two of the activist VLT opponents, Dr. Chenzira Kahina and Terrence Nelson, seemed surprised when they heard about Southland's efforts at the race track. Kahina expressed frustration, saying the government is ignoring their concerns.
Over the course of two years, and in an apparent bow to public will, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed three different bills legalizing VLT's. The third veto was met with an override by the 24th Legislature in its final session, on Dec. 23. That action has prompted ongoing protests by opponents of VLT's, mainly on St. Croix, the territory's designated site of casino gambling, where the terminals are viewed as competition for tourists' gambling dollars.
V.I. racetracks are among the venues listed as proposed sites for the installation of gaming machines under the 1998 Southland contract with the V.I. Lottery, along with restaurants, taverns, nightclubs and airports.
In the face of moves by the V.I. government to void its contract with the V.I. Lottery, Southland went to court in February seeking an order upholding the agreement. The government filed a countersuit, claiming the contract was invalid. An out-of-court settlement was reached on March 21, but its terms are being kept secret by both sides, who also filed a motion on March 24 to dismiss the case.
Now that the court is no longer involved, Watlington says, the settlement is a private matter, a position strongly opposed by VLT opponents on St. Croix.
To Kahina, a member of Per Ankh ("House of Life"), one of several groups making up the United Virgin Islands Action Coalition, that doesn't sound right. "I didn't think they could keep something as high profile as that away from the people," she said on Monday.
Nelson, coalition spokesman, said on Monday that he believes withholding the settlement from the public violates public disclosure laws. He also said he suspects it's part of an effort to keep the issue out of the limelight in advance of Senate consideration of a bill calling for repeal of the law making video lottery operations legal.
Nelson, a labor leader, expressed skepticism about Southland's petition drive. It "might all be a hoax to muster support so the Legislature will maintain the law that allows for video lottery terminal operations," he said. "It implies to us, with what they had agreed to, the agreement might have given allowance to continue gaming in the territory."
Evidence seems to support that theory — Southland's setup of the demo VLT's at the race track on Sunday and the continued operation of the machines at the three St. Thomas venues where the company had installed them prior to the filing of the two lawsuits.
The United V.I. Action Coalition — with a core group of about 35 active members — came together in late December in connection with demonstrations in protest of substantial pay raises enacted, also at the Dec. 23 session, for the governor, the lieutenant governor and senators. The governor, again bowing to public opinion, subsequently vetoed the raises.
Since then, Nelson said, the coalition has focused on protesting VLT's. It was a prime mover behind Saturday's meeting of community and business organizations at Gertrude's Restaurant.
Attending the gathering were representatives of St. Croix taxi associations, the St. Croix Women's Coalition, the St. Croix Environmental Association, St. Croix Renaissance Group, Generation Now, the St. Croix Coalition, Our Virgin Islands Labor Union, the V.I. Territorial Realtors Association, the USVI Sustainable Economic Development Coalition and other groups.
In an effort to obtain information about the Southland-V.I. government relationship, Kahina said, letters were sent to V.I. Lottery Director Austin Andrews, Attorney General Iver Stridiron and V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt. Copies of the letters were sent to the governor, all senators and Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc Biggs, she said.
So far, she said, there has been no response.
Prior to Senate Committee of the Whole hearings on VLT's held on March 13 and 14, Kahina said, coalition members also wrote to Senate President David Jones asking to see documents relating to VLT's in the Virgin Islands. "We were very specific about what we were requesting, and they were public documents," she said. "There was no response" before the hearings, she said. "When they did call, it was after the public hearings."
"The transparency of our government should not allow for any contract" with it to be withheld from the public, Kahina said.
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