Residents cry foul over proposed betting parlor

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Residents cry foul over proposed betting parlor

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Left: This building is slated to become an off-track betting establishment, but residents are on high alert as the neighborhood in Yongsan, central Seoul, is full of schools. Right: A banner at Seongsim Girls’ High School, which is located near the building, reads, “We are absolutely opposed to the off-track gambling site as it undermines the educational environment.” By Kim Seong-ryong

Fears that an undesirable element will be placed along the path their kids have to take home from school has Yongsan residents up in arms over a plan to move an off-track betting site into their neighborhood.

Such facilities allow gamblers to watch and bet on horse races happening at the track in Gwacheon in real time, but are viewed as dens of iniquity by many Koreans.

Locals have been staging rallies and urging the local government and the Korea Racing Association (KRA), which runs such places, to stop the planned move.

A visit to the betting parlor the KRA intends to move indicated that residents’ fears are not unfounded. When a JoongAng Ilbo reporter went by the current location just west of Yongsan Station on a Monday, evidence of the Sunday races could be seen all around the building.

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The nearby streets were littered with betting tickets, cigarette butts and food waste. In the stairwell, empty beer cans and soju bottles rolled on the floor, while urine stains and a strong accompanying odor lurked in some corners.

“I’ve been working as a cleaner for years in many buildings, but this is the worst place ever,” a janitor told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Many gamblers even drink alcohol in broad daylight.”

The KRA is about two months away from finishing a brand new venue in the same neighborhood that it plans to move the other establishment into. Construction is underway on the 25-story building near Electronics Land on Hangangro 3-ga in Yongsan. It has invested about 120 billion won ($107.4 million) in the project.

The KRA established the plan in 2009, but locals were only informed in May, four months before construction is due to be completed. Neither the Yongsan District Office nor the KRA sought out the agreement of residents.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs regulations state that agencies under the ministry, such as the KRA, don’t need authorization from residents to move their place of business if they move within same neighborhood. Park Jang-gyu, former chief of the Yonsan District Office, approved the KRA’s plan on June 30, 2010, a day before he left office.

The reason that the local residents don’t want the facility on Hagangro 3-ga is that six schools - from kindergarten to high school - are located in the area. Under the law, facilities like this can’t be located within a radius of 200 meters (656 feet) of a school. The closest school to the new venue would be Seongsim Girl’s High School, where President Park Geun-hye is an alumnus. It’s just out of the legal range, at 235 meters.

“Hundreds of our students take public buses home from a stop in front of the new race track building,” said Seong Baek-young, deputy principal of the school. “We’re really worried about the safety of the students because it’s obvious they’ll have to face many drunken gamblers.”

The KRA runs races three days a week - on Friday, Saturday and Sunday - but the area around their off-track betting parlors are always crowded with gamblers. Many come every day to drink and exchange tips on horses. There are a total of 30 such establishments nationwide; 10 are in Seoul.

The Yongsan residents formed a committee to press the district office and the KRA to recall the plan. Committee leaders visited the office of Chin Young, chief of the Health and Welfare Ministry and a Yongsan District lawmaker, and thousands of residents held a candlelight rally on Saturday in front of the new building.

In the face of such opposition, the district office put in a last minute request to the KRA that it change its plans for the building. It also asked the Agricultural Ministry to cancel its approval of the plan. In June, the ministry said, “We will encourage the KRA to listen to the residents’ opinions,” but no additional moves have been made on the issue since.

BY LEE YU-JEONG, AND KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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