July is high tide for tourism in Galveston. At this time of year, Houstonians — and even some Tulsans and Topekans — trek to the island for sun and sand. The key words here are “at this time of year.” When the first frost hits the oleanders and the Rosenberg Monument is as chilled as a gin martini in the Pelican Club, vendors close their vending machines, lifeguards return to their careers as bouncers on lower Westheimer and Galveston falls dormant.
Galveston used to be the diamond in Texas’ crown until Houston, that sleepy fishing village 50 miles to the north, became the state’s upstart usurper. The Galveston Pavilion became the first structure to use electricity; the town got the first telephone and hosted the first baseball game in the state. The Galveston News, the state’s oldest continuing daily newspaper (1842), was running its presses when most Texans were running to save their scalps. The BOIs (Born on the Island, a select group that includes billionaire George Mitchell and Astros’ pitcher Brandon Backe) are proud of their little island, but even the most avid supporters agree Galveston could use a boost. There are several things to be concerned about. The population is declining –61,809 in 1970 to 57,614 in 2000 to today’s 57,466. In 1870, Galveston was the largest city in Texas; now it isn’t even the largest city in Galveston County. League City’s population surpassed the island’s between 2000 and 2005. Job growth has been slow in recent years, rising from 24,913 in 2006 to 25,102 in 2007, a jump of 189 newly created valet parkers and manicurists. The famed Beach Party Weekend is dead. In 2008, the spring break for black college students drew its smallest crowd in 23 years. It drew 200,000 partiers in years gone by; this year’s traffic flow of 46,000 across the Causeway was not much above average for a spring weekend. Finally, the island’s violent crime rate is increasing.
Galveston, we have a problem. But through the years Galveston has endured more catastrophes and tragedies than any city in Texas, unless you’re a Houston sports fan. The town’s first European visitor, a shipwreck survivor, was greeted by the only cannibalistic Indians in America. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wasn’t eaten by the Karankawas, probably because they discovered his name meant Head of a Cow. Even cannibals have taste. The island has survived occupation by Jean Laffite, who set up a pirate camp called Campeachy, mutiny by sailors of the Texas Navy, and was the only place in Texas captured and occupied by Union troops.
In 1867 the town suffered a terrible yellow fever epidemic, which affected about 75 percent of the population and killed 20 people per day. The fatal blow to the city’s growth was the Galveston Storm of 1900, which killed nearly10,000 people. We keep being told by Cajuns that Katrina was “the worst and most deadly natural disaster in our nation’s history.” That is self-important twaddle. The Galveston Storm leveled an entire city and killed far more people than Katrina (1,836). Everything’s bigger in Texas.
The problems that ail Galveston today can’t be solved with a vaccine and a hearty spirit. They need money. But remember Rule Number 1 around here: Don’t complain unless you have a solution; and, as usual, we do. In a word, casinos.
The port city had always been a free-wheeling place with ships, sailors and Marines hitting town. According to the Handbook of Texas, during Prohibition it really got hopping under the guidance of the Maceo family. Illegal gambling and saloons boomed, along with prostitution in the lower realms of town. Citizens tolerated and supported the illegal activities; they took pride in living in “the free state of Galveston.”
Today, Texans still love to gamble. Texans do gamble. Casinos are tucked near the Texas border in southern and northern Louisiana, just above the Red River on Indian reservations in Oklahoma, and a mile or so west of El Paso in New Mexico. The two major casinos in southern Louisiana, Coushatta and L’Auberge du Lac, daily, if not hourly, send buses to fetch Houstonians (or reel in the fat fish). Oklahoma Indian tribes send a dozen buses to get Texans daily, but only five pick up Oklahomans. Operators of these gambling establishments say that 85 – 90 percent of their patrons are from the Lone Star State.
Texas Indians tried to enter the casino business, but the lethal combination of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff made sure out-of-state casinos had no competition within Texas. Today 48 states have some kind of gambling operations; thirty-eight of them, including Texas, have lotteries that annually generate $16 billion for the states. The 2007 American Gaming Association (AGA) survey of the commercial casino industry reports gross gaming revenue reached $34.13 billion, up from $19.7 billion in 1998. During that time, gaming tax revenues contributed by commercial casinos to state and local governments more than doubled, from $2.5 billion in 1998 to $5.79 billion in 2007. Chump change for our native brethren. Gambling operations by the nation’s nearly 225 casino-operating tribes are now a $22 billion–a-year industry, richer than Nevada casinos. All of which leaves Texas outside the velvet ropes.
We say Galveston should become the Strip on the Strand. The island paradise has ocean breezes, sandy beaches, great seafood and, in case of slot overdose or roulette rash, there is UTMB. Our proposal is to line Stewart Beach, which is safely behind the seawall, with high-rise condos and hotels with pools, restaurants, meeting rooms and night clubs for big name entertainment like the Houston Livestock Show &Rodeo’s own Dancing With the Steers. And of course, we’d have big casinos, which would pay for everything else, even after sending millions to local and state tax coffers. We can’t tell our good friends down south how to run their city any more than we would want them to tell us how to pump more benzene into the air. But someday our city limit signs might read, “Houston City Limits — Gateway to Galveston.” Hello, Mister Chips.