SOUTHSIDE – An advocate for a referendum on bingo halls in Calhoun County isn’t happy with the way a proposed amendment appears on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Local Amendment 1, set to go before voters on Election Day, would ban bingo halls from operating within 3,000 feet of any residence. The lawmaker who sponsored the amendment says the wording on ballots, printed earlier this month, may have buried the lead.
“The way it’s written up is confusing,” said Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden. “It looks like we’re voting to legalize bingo, when it’s already legal.”
Nordgren proposed the 3,000-foot limit in 2017, after neighbors who live on White Oak Drive, near Southside, began raising concerns about Big Hit, a bingo parlor at the end of that private road. Residents at the time told The Star that the bingo hall brought hundreds of cars to their dead-end, private drive on the rural northern end of the county.
By the time the amendment passed both houses of the Alabama Legislature in 2017, the controversy over Big Hit Bingo seemed to be already in the past. The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office raided the bingo hall shortly after it opened, following a dispute over whether the bingo hall had a proper license. Big Hit’s owners, a Wyoming company called 3D-LIQ, sued the Sheriff’s Office, lost their case, and abandoned an appeal in January.
Today it’s not entirely clear what’s going on at the end of White Oak Drive. The once-locked gate at the bingo complex is now open. A sign out front announces the property as the White Oak Event Center. A softball field appears to be almost completed in one corner of the property, and another building has the words “softball sportsplex” over the door. No one answered a knock at that door Monday.
Along the White Oak Drive, residents seem more closed off to the public than they were a year ago. “No trespassing” and “keep out” signs are posted at the end of almost every driveway. Every few hundred feet, there’s a reminder that the road is a private drive.
“Slow down,” one sign reads. “This is neighborhood, not a racetrack.”
The Facebook page for White Oak Event Center shows occasional wrestling matches, held by the Anniston-based Southern Legacy Wrestling, hosted at the site in recent months. Attempts to reach the number listed on the Facebook page were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach Anniston residents Gary Wilborn and John Sears, listed in county records as the current owners of the property, were unsuccessful. Anniston lawyer Jason Odom, 3D-LIQ’s lawyer at the start of the bingo permit case, said he hasn’t worked with the company in more than two years.
Nordgren said she can’t understand why anyone put a bingo hall on a private drive in the first place.
“Why not put it on a busy highway where people can see it?” she said.
Nordgren believes a bingo operation could still be in the works for White Oaks Drive if her amendment doesn’t pass. Still, she’s not aware of any concerted publicity campaigns for or against the measure. She’s concerned about the wording on the ballot, which describes the amendment as “authorizing the operation of bingo games for prizes or money in the county; and to prohibit any bingo permittee… from operating bingo near a residential area.”
Bingo is already legal in the county, though past bingo operations in Piedmont and Hobson City have closed their doors, unable to turn a profit.
It’s typical for ballot measures to restate the law that’s being amended. In 2014, lawmakers set up a Fair Ballot Commission to write shorter, clearer summaries of ballot measures.
The commission covers only statewide amendments, not county-level measures. The ballot wording for the Calhoun County amendment is laid out in the amendment as passed in 2017 — wording that Nordgren would likely have had a hand in, though lawmakers often tweak amendment wording during the legislative process.
Asked about the ballot wording, Secretary of State’s office spokesman Jason Houston said the office had no comment.