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By chance, group hits jackpot with gambling addiction sign

A sign urging addicts to admit their problem lands across the street from Port Richey Casinos.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003


PORT RICHEY -- It seems the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling has a bit of gambler's luck.

With limited cash, the nonprofit group tried to buy billboard space near gambling outlets as part of its latest media campaign, taking whatever was open.

The sign in Port Richey couldn't get any closer: it's across the street from Port Richey Casinos.

The sign, urging gamblers to admit their addiction and call toll-free 1-800-Admit It for help, towers over the casino's parking lot. In fact, it's in a better spot than the company's own billboard, which is down U.S. 19 a ways, on the other side of the highway.

"We just lucked out," council executive director Pat Fowler said. "It wasn't deliberate."

And their luck might get better. Port Richey Casinos is the only one operating on Port Richey's waterfront now. But Stardancer Casino Cruises owner Sam Gray said last week that he's trying to reopen in Port Richey, and a group of investors is talking about putting a $15-million hotel in the area and running a gambling boat from its docks.

The compulsive gambling group, which started in 1988 and has been offering referrals for problem gamblers since 1992, couldn't hope to cover the state in billboards, Fowler said. So members chose Central and South Florida as their targets.

Then the group went looking for billboard space near gambling outlets -- Indian casinos, horse and dog tracks, jai alai frontons and cruises to nowhere gambling boats.

By chance, the sign across River Gulf Road, on the northwest corner of U.S. 19 and the Pithlachascotee River, was open.

"I really didn't know it was on the parking lot," Fowler said with a chuckle.

Neither had Mollie Kolokithas, a member of the family that owns Port Richey Casinos. Not that she minds it there, she said.

The company has warnings for people on their tickets to not gamble more than they can afford, and they used to post the gambling help line number in their waiting area, Kolokithas said.

And, according to recent research, more Floridians need gambling help.

In February, University of Florida researchers released a report, partly paid for by the council on compulsive gambling, that said Floridians were more likely to have gambling problems or be prone to them than residents of other states.

The study did not explain why so many Floridians have gambling problems but found that Florida has more than double the percentage of problem and compulsive gamblers -- 1.1 percent of the population -- than the 0.5 percent reported in a national survey.

The study also found that 33 percent of residents between ages 50 and 65 gamble at least weekly, a higher percentage than any other age group.

Port Richey Casino's clientele, especially this time of year when snowbirds are in Pasco, largely fits that profile.

But Fowler insists that it wasn't planned.

"Pure chance, I guess," she said.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com .

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