Almost business as usual at White Hall

Published 11:36 pm Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The city’s gambling center on Wednesday was in its second day of operation after reopening, and it was business as usual in many ways.

Aside from the “Out of Order” signs hanging on several rows of games, Laura Merchant had as much fun as she normally does. But she still misses playing “So Hot,” “Double Devils” and “Mystic Nights,” some of the games currently out of commission.

“I would like to see them bring back the machines, but other than that, it’s the same to me,” said Merchant, who visits the gambling center at least once monthly.

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A recent raid by the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling left one of Lowndes County’s largest employers out of business for nearly two weeks. Amid Gov. Bob Riley’s allegations that machines at White Hall are illegal, the task force confiscated machines and money March 19.

According to a release from White Hall Entertainment, more than 105 employees were displaced during that time.

A ruling Saturday by Judge Mark Kennedy allowed the gambling hall to reopen without the threat of another raid by the task force. State police also had to return more than 100 machines taken.

Dickie said the state had not yet returned the machines, a major reason that hours of operation are currently from 10 a.m.-5 a.m. The charity bingo hall, run by Cornerstone Community Outreach Inc., will open for 24 hours soon after all its machines are back. About 400 of nearly 950 machines are now operational.

“Why they come here versus anyone else, I have no idea,” Dickie said. “We run virtually the same games as Greenetrack and Victoryland. I think we have one vendor they don’t have, and they have one vendor we don’t have. Our games are virtually identical.”

Dickie said White Hall Entertainment gives about $500,000 annually to charities and groups in Lowndes County and the surrounding area. In addition to its regular employees, it provides business opportunities to hundreds of workers indirectly. The completion of an adjacent shopping center and restaurant could add more than 50 additional jobs.

Juanita Holland, a Montgomery resident, had gambled at White Hall once before the raid.

She expressed some concern about the way Riley’s office handled the situation.

“I think it should be left up to this county. The (state) government got too involved,” Holland said.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Charles Robinson of St. Clair County ruled charity bingo can be played legally on electronic machines in Ashville. The decision opens the way for a large bingo hall to be opened in the north Alabama town and run by American Legion Post 170 and possibly other charities.

Ashville Mayor Robert McKay, who is post adjutant for the American Legion, said there are plans to build the hall near Interstate 59 with about 2,500 machines. The project would also include two restaurants and a motel.

District Attorney Richard Minor and Sheriff Terry Surles challenged the plans, arguing that the machines are illegal slot machines. Minor said he would have to review the judge’s ruling before commenting on his next step.