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Conflict over Asheville civic center: Another reminder that government shouldn’t promote gambling

In an era in which they’re joined at the hip to a chronically dishonest and bigoted casino owner, it’s hard to know where religious conservatives stand these days on the issues that do not involve sex and/or trying to tell other people who to love or what to do with their own bodies. That said, the city of Asheville is currently in the midst of a controversy that used to bring the religious right together with progressives: government promotion of gambling.

It seems the city is considering naming rights offers from various private parties for the town civic enter and a leading bid comes from a gambling interest, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which is located on Native American land in far western North Carolina.

Of course, the practice of affixing the names of private businesses to public spaces like arenas and stadiums ought to be a controversial idea regardless of who or what is buying the rights. Public property belongs (or should belong) to all who inhabit a community and the practice of selling naming rights to private actors clearly undermines that notion and reinforces the destructive and increasingly prevalent view that government is an institution to which we should relate as we would a vending machine, rather than as stakeholders.

As a practical matter, however, objections to naming rights sales have been mostly sporadic and a function of whether the would be naming entity has a pleasant ring to it. In general, government leaders have tended to favor sterile, ultra-corporate sounding labels of the kind that come from banks or tech companies.

Occasionally, issues of morality creep into the discussion (Raleigh opted not to christen its new downtown music venue the “Bud Light Amphitheater” a few years back, though some attributed that to city leaders not wanting it to be known as the “BLA” rather than any real concerns about promoting alcohol consumption). For the most part, however, name rejections have been based more on whether proposals would sound corny, provincial or unpleasant, rather than morality. Hence, Bank of America Stadium and Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts: “yes”; Piggly Wiggly Field or Preparation H Arena: “probably no.”

Regardless of any past derelictions of duty, the debate in Asheville over renaming what has been known as the U.S. Cellular Center ought to raise the issue of morality for caring and thinking people of all political persuasions. This is not because some view gambling as immoral — that’s clearly an issue that America resolved long ago to leave to individuals. The issue here is government’s role in promoting it.

As national predatory gambling expert Les Bernal pointed out about the “education lottery” several years ago when he visited North Carolina, public involvement in promoting gambling makes government an accessory to a scam and a lie, even if it is an entertaining. As we reported at that time in reference to our state’s ubiquitous lottery ads:

In short, it’s the kind of message that turns government’s traditional role on its head. Rather than acting as the source of democratic, intentional public solutions, government is transformed into an exploitative, PT Barnum-like huckster – selling “fun” and “entertainment” while shaking down suckers for every last dime.

And so it would be if Asheville leaders cave in and sell out to Harrah’s. By transforming one of their city’s most visible and important public gathering places into a gambling billboard, officials may rake in a few extra bucks, but in the end, they will only serve to help undermine the public’s faith in the structures and services they purport to want to underwrite.

Happily, a local tourism leader has spoken out against the idea, saying the move would be “inconsistent with [Asheville’s] community identity.” Let’s hope that critique prevails, that folks on the religious right join with caring and thinking progressives to weigh in against the Harrah’s push and that Asheville city leaders resist the temptation to compromise the long-term common good for a little extra short-term cash.

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