Rockaway Beach wants casino gambling

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

It wasn't all that many years ago that Rockaway Beach, a tiny town on Lake Taneycomo south of Springfield, Mo., was best known for the high jinks of college students whose parties frequently got out of hand.

Aside from that, the 275-population hamlet hasn't drawn much attention as it watched the phenomenal growth of its neighbor a few miles away, Branson.

In the past 30 years, the Shepherd of the Hills town has grown from a small theme park and cave tours to one of the nation's biggest venues for big-name shows aimed at family audiences.

The reputation of Branson as a place to go for good, clean fun has served it well and sparked one of the biggest show-business booms ever.

Rockaway Beach thinks it can spark a boom too, only instead of tourists looking for country music and famous recording artists, the tiny town wants to bring in gamblers.

This is the latest development in Missouri's gambling history, which many of the state's residents can recite by heart. They remember when Branson's only attraction was the Shepherd of the Hills pageant and gambling was so illegal that even bingo and raffle fund raisers drew official frowns.

Then the Missouri Lottery came along, followed soon enough by riverboat casinos limited to cruising faux paddleboats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. That didn't last long, however, as casinos were permitted to permanently dock on or near the two rivers.

The spread of gambling

There has been considerable speculation about where gambling would spread next.

The Lake of the Ozarks, for example, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to its resorts and lakeside cottages.

And, of course, there has been some talk about the possibility of casinos in another part of the state that is a big tourist destination: the popular lake area around Branson.

One thing that has stood in the way of a big push for casinos on any of the rivers of Southwest Missouri has been an abiding commitment to maintaining the family atmosphere of Branson's reputation. So it comes as no surprise that Branson businesses are already showing their opposition to Rockaway Beach's effort to get a casino.

Petition drive planned

In order for Rockaway Beach to accomplish its goal, it must get 188,000 signatures statewide on a petition calling for a vote in November 2004 on a constitutional amendment. Whether or not the amendment would allow casinos on other rivers or lakes in the Branson area is still a matter of speculation.

The sales pitch for the Rockaway Beach casino has a familiar ring: money for schools. Remember the campaign to get Missourians to vote for the lottery? Remember the reason voters were pushed to approve riverboat gambling?

Backers of the Rockaway Beach casino say it would generate $40 million to $49 million annually for the state, half of which would be earmarked for schools that fail to meet the state's academic standards. It remains to be seen if that's enough to sway voters.

Keep in mind that casinos generate only a small portion of the state's funding for public schools. This year, Missouri's 11 casinos are expected to raise $237 million for schools, or just 5 percent of the $4.6 billion budget for elementary and secondary education.

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