A long shot

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2005

WHITE HALL &045; For years the tiny community of White Hall was little more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop on the way to Montgomery or Selma.

The town, made up of mostly lower-income black families, was a forgotten burg whose main claim to fame was that it is the birthplace of NBA star Ben Wallace

Suddenly, that changed and tiny White Hall found itself at the center of a statewide battle over gambling in Alabama.

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The History:

In August of 2004 a charity bingo hall known as the White Hall Gaming Center opened just off of Highway 80 without much publicity or fanfare.

To many, it simply appeared to spring up overnight.

Operated by Sellers Day Care, Inc. &045; a Lowndes County non-profit corporation which holds the gaming license &045; the center has done brisk business with promotions such as car and boat giveaways and even a celebrity appearance. But the main business at the White Hall Gaming Center is gambling.

Inside the large, wide-open facility are rows and rows of electronic machines, all brightly flashing and claiming to have some connection to bingo.

The building teems with security.

Gamblers use debit-type cards that activate the machine and on which the games tally wins and losses.

So far, according to Jeff Connor, White Hall Gaming Center marketing consultant, the facility has brought between $4 and $6 million dollars to the community.

Though White Hall officials appear quite pleased with the facility, it has been the source of controversy.

In December Attorney General Troy King &045; who is facing re-election this year &045; set Alabama’s gaming facilities squarely in his sights.

White Hall was at the top of the list.

King filed a complaint in Lowdnes County Circuit Court claiming the state amendment that authorized the bingo hall was invalid and the site should be shut down immediately.

The Law:

According to state law, amendments with local application must be approved by a statewide vote if it does not unanimously pass in the Legislature.

Amendment No. 732 authorizing the charity bingo hall had one dissenting vote cast by former Sen. George Callahan, R-Mobile.

Yet instead of appearing on a statewide ballot, Amendment No. 732 appeared on the ballot in Lowndes County as a local amendment and was approved by voters.

Lawyers for the Gaming Center have asked why White Hall should be punished for the state’s mistake.

They say that the amendment was approved by the state and the center has been operating legally.

Gaming Center attorney Prince Chestnut said the case should be based on equity and fairness.

The Debate:

At a hearing on June 29 in Lowdnes County, King’s representatives asked the judge to rule on the case.

Circuit Court Judge H.E. McFerrin gave the bingo hall’s lawyers 90 days to respond King’s request to rule on the case.

But King isn’t the only one that wants to see the Hall shut down.

Boynton has filed a class action lawsuit against the White Hall Gaming Center and the town on behalf of people who lost money at the bingo hall.

The Alabama Christian Coalition – which itself has been embattled for accepting gambling donations from Mississippi –

is also firmly against the White Hall facility.

If King’s bid to stop the facility fails, Bonyton has another area of contention. He says the bingo hall and the non-profit organization that runs it are in violation of state ethics laws.

In his lawsuit, Boynton contests the authority of the White Hall Gamming Commission to issue a gaming license to Seller Day Care, Inc.

Boynton said all the officers with the non-profit corporation are related to members of the Commission, which includes White Hall Mayor John Jackson.

Alabama Code 1975, Section 36-25-9(a) prohibits a person to serve as a member of a municipal commission that regulates any business in which they are associated.

In his lawsuit, Boynton also questioned whether the raffling of money and automobiles constitutes a lottery and is therefore illegal.

All along, the city of White Hall and the Gaming Center have said the facility is legal.

The Impact:

Connor said the bingo hall is currently bringing in about 1,000 customers every day.

With just over 160 employees, the majority from White Hall or Lowndes County, the bingo hall is the largest and only major employer in White Hall.

Connor said plans are also in the works that could bring even more jobs and money to the area. In fact, he said, more than 40 acres of property have been purchased near the bingo hall to build a hotel and convention center.

Jackson has previously said the popularity of the bingo hall has attracted the interest of other businesses as well. He said a restaurant and convenience store are considering locating to the area.

King, however, said that the financial impact is irrelevant.

The Charity:

To be able to run a Gaming Center in Alabama, the facility must donate 51 percent to charity.

That portion of the profits from the bingo slot machines go to Cornerstone Outreach, which distributes funds to a wide variety of Lowndes County non-profit organizations.

Katie Jackson, executive director of Cornerstone Outreach and wife of the White Hall Mayor, said so far over $100,000 has been distributed to different non-profit organizations, which includes area schools and youth programs.

Jackson said funds were also distributed to White Hall and Lowndes County law enforcement and senior citizen programs.

More recently, it was announced that Cornerstone Outreach, along with the City of White Hall, the Lowndes County Commission, and the Lowndes County Board of Education and NBA player Ben Wallace were working together to build a nearly $2 million gymnasium and athletic center next to Jackson Steele Elementary School.

Connor, said the gymnasium is an example of how the gaming center is helping to create progress in the community.

Jackson said there was &8220;no way&8221; the town could have received this much benefit if it were not for the White Hall Gaming Center.

The Future:

The attorneys for the White Hall Gaming Center are working to ensure shutting down the White Hall Gaming Center will not be an easy task. Chestnut said he has good reason to believe Amendment 732 is &8220;in state law books&8221; and is in the process of preparing to respond to motions made in the lawsuits.

Selma attorney J.L. Chestnut, also a lawyer for the bingo hall and the Town of White Hall, said through the process of discovery he plans to go into detail about what, if any, mistakes were made.

The judge, however, said he was ready to have this case resolved.

In late September, the attorneys will respond to the allegations against the town and bingo hall and Judge McFerrin will then decide whether or not the case should go before a jury.

Until then, things will go on as normal at the Gaming Center.