The situation: Calhoun County last November passed an ordinance that was drafted in an effort to fix a problem that didn’t yet exist, and created a problem that it now needs to fix, and left in place the problem it was supposed to fix.
The background: Residents on White Oak Drive in rural Calhoun County near Southside worried in 2016 that their neighborhood would be overrun with traffic with the anticipated opening of Big Hit Bingo. Because Alabama doesn’t allow county commissions to have home rule power over zoning or taxing, those residents appealed to their state legislator for a solution. Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, proposed an amendment that prohibits any bingo parlor operating within 1,000 yards of a residence. That would have shut down Big Hit Bingo … had it stayed open.
Nordgren’s bingo amendment, however, moved forward and ended up on a countywide ballot in November 2018. More than 31,000 people voted on the amendment, with 69 percent voting in favor of limiting bingo operations near residences.
The result is one apparently no one saw coming. Elks Lodge bingo in Anniston is around 600 feet from the nearest residence and is now in danger of being shut down by the legislation. The county’s bingo commission voted unanimously Thursday night to do just that, citing the new legislation’s lack of a grandfather clause, which legally leaves the commissioners no choice.
So, to recap: A legislator in Gadsden tried to fix an anticipated traffic concern on White Oak Drive by prohibiting all bingo parlors near residences in Calhoun County, which effectively shut down a bingo hall 30 miles away in the city of Anniston, and did nothing to address the traffic concerns on White Oak Drive. In fact, the amendment doesn’t even mention the word “traffic.”
Former County Commissioner Gerald Wilkerson, an informed Star reader, first brought the issue to The Star’s attention. Since 2017, reporter Tim Lockette has written at least five stories about the legislation and asked officials whether any other bingo parlors would be affected. The answer was, no.
The victim: The Elks Lodge has run its bingo game in Anniston since 1979, pays $35,000 per year in taxes to the City of Anniston, gives around $63,000 to charity, and employs eight people, according to Lockette’s reporting. Bingo commissioners said the group is a model of how bingo should work under state law, which was set up to allow nonprofits to hold games as fundraisers.
It’s a tragic comedy of errors that will have far-reaching repercussions without a quick solution.
The real fix: Home rule. If this had been an ordinance passed by the local County Commission, it could be fixed at the next commission meeting. Instead, it’s now in the state constitution and will likely require a lawsuit and a ruling by a judge, or an amendment to the amendment to the state constitution.
This isn’t a shot at Nordgren, who was trying to use the only tools available to address the concerns of her constituents. Without home rule for county commissions, legislators are left too often trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer, which can be effective but also creates a lot of collateral damage and unintended consequences.
Meantime: The original location for Big Hit Bingo is now being used to host wrestling events, so the residents on White Oak Drive still ended up with the increased traffic they were trying to prevent in the first place.