ATLANTIC CITY - In September, charter flights arrived at Atlantic City International Airport from the Ohio cities of Cleveland, Akron, Columbus and Youngstown. Most of the passengers were gamblers headed to the Atlantic City casinos. Come Tuesday, they may have a reason not to come back.

Ohio voters will consider a referendum that would legalize casinos in the state's four biggest cities - Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. If approved, Ohio will become the 39th state to have casino gambling.

The American Gaming Association said Ohio is the only state that has an Election Day ballot question to legalize casinos. The outcome could be crucial for gauging public sentiment toward the gaming industry. Other states continue to debate legalizing casinos or are preparing legislation to expand gambling.

Ohio voters have rejected gambling proposals four times in the past 19 years, but this time polls show that casinos have support. The most recent poll found that 57 percent of registered voters back the casino ballot.

Casino proponents have seized on the weak economy to promote the issue. A pro-casino committee called Ohio Jobs & Growth touts the thousands of jobs that would be created by the gaming industry.

"Unemployment in this state is hovering around 11 percent. Construction of four casinos would create 34,000 permanent jobs and 19,000 construction jobs relatively quickly, starting next year," committee spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said.

Ohio Jobs & Growth is backed by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and casino developer Penn National Gaming Inc. Supporters of the casino measure have spent $31 million so far, five times more than gambling opponents.

Prominent casino opponents include U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and a coalition of black clergy. Similar to warnings that shadowed the 1976 New Jersey referendum that legalized casinos in Atlantic City, Ohio opponents claim the gaming halls would prey on the poor, cause crime and lead to compulsive gambling.

"We studied Atlantic City," said Bishop F.E. Perry of the Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Cleveland. "Our committee also went to Detroit and saw the devastation that happened to poor people who don't understand the trickery of gambling."

Ohio has been a feeder market for overnight casino guests in Atlantic City. Scheduled air service from Cleveland and Cincinnati to Atlantic City failed in recent years, but charter flights continue to bring gamblers from Ohio.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, operator of the Atlantic City airport, did not have a breakdown for the number of Ohio charter passengers. However, the authority noted that casinos have been pushing for scheduled air service from Midwest states and Chicago to bring more tourists and business travelers to Atlantic City.

"Our target for opening up new destinations would be anything east of the Mississippi, a nice short flight to Atlantic City International," said Sharon Gordon, the authority's spokeswoman.

Those efforts could be complicated if Ohio votes for casinos. Atlantic City also faces intense competition from surrounding states that are in the midst of expanding their casino gambling.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:


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