By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
May 12, 2022
Friday, April 6, Rev. Curtis Norris, pastor of Calvary Church in Olivia, received an urgent phone call from Belinda McGugan about an application for a gaming establishment in their community. A retiree and resident of Olivia, McGugan was deeply concerned that gambling would bring the wrong kind of influences.
A building located on Highway 87 and the corner of Olivia Road in Olivia, a space that had been a former convenience store and empty for a few years, was now being considered for a Sweepstakes Parlor.
Chan Ho, from South Korea, had purchased the building in question within the last year, and much of the community had hoped one day it would house a new restaurant since Hardees was the only eatery around. However, none of these expectations materialized, and Ho was hoping to rent the building to get a return on his investment. The gaming establishment that wanted to rent from Ho was never revealed, only that Ho wanted a particular use permit granted to rent it to them.
Notifications from the Harnett County Board of Adjustments about a hearing on the matter were sent out to property owners adjacent to the proposed site of the Sweepstakes Parlor. Still, says Rev. Norris, who is also a Board member of the Christian Action League, very few community members were informed.
“They were supposed to announce the hearing on the proposal in the newspaper,” said Norris, “and they did, except they put it in The Dunn Daily Record. That paper doesn’t circulate widely in our community. Olivia is in the western part of the county and nearer to Sanford in Lee County, than Dunn, which is in the eastern part of the county. So, very few people were aware.”
Norris added a small evidentiary sign announcing the public meeting was posted, but it didn’t disclose the subject of the hearing. “If it hadn’t been for a concerned and diligent citizen looking this up online, this matter would have gotten by us,” he said.
Moreover, Norris said he thought the wording that announced the hearing was “manipulative” because it didn’t say a Sweepstakes Parlor or a “gambling establishment” was the issue. Instead, it referred to the establishment that would use the building in vague and less alarming terms, calling it a “recreational gaming facility.”
Norris said he immediately got on the telephone after hearing from McGugan and started contacting other people he believed would be concerned. One of those persons was Rev. Russell Blackmon, pastor of Swanns Station Baptist Church near Olivia.
Blackmon and Norris had worked together in opposition to an alcohol referendum for beer sales in the rural Barbeque precinct of Harnett County in 2004. Both pastors had served the area potentially affected for a combined total of 50 years.
The two swiftly developed a petition against the initiative, put it before their churches on Sunday, and started garnering signatures. By the time of the hearing on Monday, within 36 hours they had more than 60 signatures – some of which were key and influential citizens.
“Think of how many more signatures we would have gotten if we had more time,” said Norris.
State Senator Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) would also get involved in opposition after being informed by Norris. Burgin explained to Norris that North Carolina statutes make it illegal for such establishments even to open. Burgin, who could not be at the hearing because of a scheduling conflict, gave Norris a verbal okay to speak on his behalf and express his disapproval of the application.
The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office were also informed by Norris and expressed concern. Consequently, the Sheriff’s Department assigned Lieutenant J. Christensen to speak against the application before the Board of Adjustments.
During the hearing on Monday evening, Norris said four persons spoke against the application for the building’s use as a gaming facility.
Deputy Christensen spoke first and explained that Sweepstakes Parlors or “recreational gaming facilities” were illegal in this state. If such a business were to open in Olivia, it would be incumbent upon the Sheriff’s Department to shut it down.
Belinda McGugan, an adjacent property owner, expressed her concerns that a gambling establishment in the community would likely increase crime and devalue adjacent properties. McGugan also shared she had a family member with serious addiction issues. She said public officials should be sensitive to how such places precipitate addiction, which is destructive to individuals and others to whom they are connected.
Norris presented the Board with the petition, which was entered into the record. He added in a short speech that what he and others like him wanted for the town of Olivia were future business opportunities which would foster “progression and not regression.”
Norris called out the Board of Adjustment members for failing to clarify to people it was “gambling” and not “a recreational gaming facility” that would be on the table during the hearing. As a pastor, he said a gambling establishment would undoubtedly spawn compulsive gamblers needing help and would create additional unnecessary burdens for churches and non-profits.
Rachel Webb was the last to speak in opposition. Webb said her husband was a law enforcement officer. Because law enforcement was already overburdened, her husband was constantly on the job. She asked the Board not agree to the application, making it harder for law enforcement officers like her husband, who were already overworked.
The decision by The Board of Adjustments was to deny the application.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said he was thrilled at how McGugan, Pastors Norris and Blackmon, and others responded so promptly to the threat of predatory gambling coming to their community.
Creech added that despite Sweepstakes Parlors being illegal in the state, some are still operating in various places.
“In a February 2022 ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court, the court made it abundantly clear that the law prohibiting Sweepstakes gambling is constitutional and that they are banned because the games are predominantly about chance, and not ‘skill and dexterity.’ Sheriffs and District Attorneys are sworn to uphold the law, and wherever these places are operating, the law is not being enforced,” said Creech. “And this is something which should concern citizens. If your public officials aren’t doing their jobs, you need new officials.”