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Prop. J Would Allow Gambling Casino on Money-Losing Queen Mary : Elections: Proponents see it as a way to save jobs. Opponents say it will open the door to crime.

October 22, 1992|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Proponents say a vote for Proposition J is a vote to keep the Queen Mary--and the hundreds of jobs it provides--in Long Beach.

But opponents of the measure contend that it will bring crime into Long Beach and tarnish the city's image.

If approved by a simple majority of voters Nov. 3, Proposition J will authorize a card casino on or near the money-losing tourist attraction.

Proponents of the measure point out that a city consultant recently concluded that opening a high-grossing casino is the only way the Queen Mary can operate in the black.

"If a card club is going to make the Queen Mary profitable, then it's good," said Lisa Lynn Backus, a local tour guide and president of a new group supporting Proposition J.

Citizens for Proposition J--which at a recent meeting included about 15 Long Beach residents, business people and Queen Mary employees--plans to pass out leaflets to residents and run newspaper ads in support of the measure, Backus said.

But opponents, who have not organized a formal campaign against Proposition J, say making the Queen Mary more profitable will not compensate for the crime and other problems gambling could bring to the city.

"It creates a lot of heartache and misery for a lot of people," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "I don't think we're that desperate."

Opponents pointed out that two Commerce councilmen pleaded guilty in 1984 to accepting hidden shares in the Commerce Casino in return for their support of the club. Two other city officials pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the case.

The card clubs in Bell Gardens and Bell have had problems as well.

Federal authorities seized the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens in 1990 after a jury found that $12 million of the $22 million used in its construction came from Florida drug smugglers.

At least one investor was convicted of racketeering charges, and the federal government and Bell Gardens acquired interest in the card casino through a federal court ruling and out-of-court settlements.

In Bell, two former city administrators and several club partners in what was then called the California Bell Club were convicted in 1984 of a racketeering scheme in connection with the card casino.

Last known as the Regency Club, the casino went bankrupt and closed in mid-August.

Opponents of Proposition J also note the social consequences of compulsive gambling.

"People will lose their jobs, lose their families to gambling," said Pastor Paul Jessen of the North Long Beach Foursquare Church. "The biggest losers in gambling are the children. Money that could have been spent for shoes and food goes to gambling."

But proponents argue that adults should be free to choose whether they want to gamble. Scrutiny of the operation should forestall any legal problems, they say.

"It will generate the kind of revenue we need to pay whatever bill that may come up on the Queen Mary," said Councilman Warren Harwood, one of the organizers of Citizens for Proposition J.

The precarious standing of the Queen Mary gave rise to the proposition.

The Walt Disney Co., which has operated the Queen Mary under a lease since 1988, is leaving the ship at the end of the year. Disney reportedly has lost as much as $10.8 million a year on the tourist attraction.

To avoid financial loss, Long Beach Harbor Department officials were ready to sell the ship earlier this month to a Hong Kong firm for $20 million. But the City Council stepped in to keep the vessel in Long Beach.

Negotiations are under way to transfer jurisdiction of the Queen Mary from the independently governed Harbor Department to the city, which would then lease the ship to a new operator.

The main sticking point is determining who will pay for repairs on the rusty ocean liner. The ship may need as much as $12 million in immediate work to make it safe, and an additional $15 million in repairs and maintenance over the next five years, according to experts.

So far, harbor officials have agreed to pay for $6.5 million of the repairs. City officials say they have no money for the rest; that means a new operator may get stuck with the bill.

Another consultant found last summer that the high cost of repairs will make it difficult for any operator to turn a profit.

Economics Research Associates of Los Angeles said only the addition of a card casino, smaller but similar to the casinos in Bell Gardens and Commerce, would enable the ship to run profitably.

Voter approval of Proposition J would clear the way for a future operator to run a card casino on the ship or in the Spruce Goose dome.

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