MITFORD, S.C. (AP) – The dust from the gravel parking lots has settled, the cigarette smoke has long since escaped and the neon signs no longer draw attention to the Magic Mall.

What was once a place to play video poker is now a place to pray, Touching Lives Ministries. Gambling “is like the enemy, the devil,” said the Rev. Archie Blackman, pastor of the tiny congregation in this town of about 1,500. “We came to show people that there is light.”

The casino-turned-church is one example of how some former outlets of the state’s now-defunct $2.8 billion video gambling industry serve new roles in the aftermath of a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling five years ago that abruptly ended the games of chance.

The community of Mitford, three miles off busy Interstate 77 between Columbia and Charlotte, N.C., was a destination for gamblers. Whether local or just visiting, people would stop at one of the half-dozen or so video poker parlors that lined State Highway 200, a stretch of two-lane blacktop that cuts through the little town.

The parlors were open 24 hours, seven days a week. Though small inside – it held about 15 video poker machines – Magic Mall stood out among the prefabricated buildings because of its pale-blue stucco.

While it was expensive for losing gamblers, the arrangement was lucrative for parlor owners. Some Mitford parlors had up to 45 machines and more than enough customers to remain open all hours.

Mitford now consists of a gas station, a liquor store, homes, churches and five abandoned buildings, including some of the closed-down parlors, scattered along Route 200. The paint on the vacant buildings is faded, the lots are overgrown and “For Sale” signs dot the roadside.

One church that occupied another former video gambling parlor has closed. In other parts of the state, ex-poker establishments now provide space for endeavors such as a school in Aiken County along the Georgia state line and a jazz bar in Richland County, a short drive from the state capitol.

At Touching Lives Ministries, meanwhile, the members look after one another like family. Two years ago, the church’s leaders saw potential in a town that they felt had been hurt by the gambling industry. Church founder William Smith said no members of the congregation are former gamblers.

Replacing poker games are clothing and food pantries, community outreach and invitations to worship. Touching Lives members say they believe they are bringing something good to the area, including their services on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Yet, as the church occupies one of the spaces of the old strip mall, a game room sits quietly next door with Mitford’s sole neon sign ablaze in the window.

“The devil’s on one side, and the Lord is on the other,” Blackman said.

The game room, known as Baker’s, is a small amusement business for locals, co-owner Telly Coleman said. Coleman said his place has pool tables and a weight room, although he wouldn’t allow a reporter or photographer inside.

“It’s just a place to get away,” he said.

By mutual agreement, Coleman said his business is never open when Touching Lives holds service.

“This man is in sin, but he respects the church,” Blackman said.

AP-ES-09-07-05 1155EDT


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