Jefferson City to vote on lifting casino ban Tuesday

Sunday, April 6, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As an architectural icon and the seat of state government, the Missouri Capitol draws more than 100,000 visitors each year to its ornate perch on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.

That steady stream of tourists, most of whom arrive on school buses, makes the majestic Capitol by far the city's most popular attraction.

But if some local leaders of the cash-strapped city government have their way, the building known for its five-story-high dome and its collection of Thomas Hart Benton murals could have a decidedly more modern neighbor along the riverfront. Think neon, a pleasure palace they hope would attract big spenders and high rollers with deep pockets and money to spare.

On Tuesday, Jefferson City voters will consider a proposal to overturn the city's 13-year-old ban on casinos and riverboat gambling. It's the third time city voters have considered the issue since 1992.

'We've got to diversify'

The renewed interest in gambling -- or more specifically, gambling revenue -- is led by City Councilman Kevin Brown. In January, he convinced five of his council colleagues to put two closely related gambling proposals on the ballot, prevailing in a 6-4 vote.

"Jefferson City is tied pretty tight to the overall economy of state government," Brown said. "For us to prosper, we've got to diversify those economic ties."

Brown and other supporters of removing the gambling ban emphasize that the vote is not driven by any actual proposals before the city or the Missouri Gaming Commission, the agency that regulates the state's 12 casinos.

Casino gambling in the state is limited to areas along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

"I don't think gaming is the savior," he said. "Quite contrary to that. But it is an element that could drive tourism and make Jefferson City more of a destination."

The opposition to Tuesday's vote is formidable. Opponents include a coalition of church leaders and some of the largely conservative city's heaviest hitters, such as Clyde Lear, chairman and chief executive of Learfield Communications.

Lear also heads Citizens Supporting Integrity, the leading opposition group. Campaign finance reports filed March 31 show the group had raised nearly $24,000 from two dozen donors, including $5,000 from Lear, $1,000 from the Missouri Baptist Convention and $5,000 from Herschend Family Entertainment, developers of Silver Dollar City in Branson.

The family corporation helped defeat an August 2004 statewide vote to amend the Missouri Constitution to allow a casino in the tiny southwest Missouri town of Rockaway Beach.

Lear said he expects the strong, vocal and organized opposition to soundly defeat the gambling measure.

"There are a lot of people who get very emotional about this issue," he said. "It's almost a spiritual thing."

One donor

That enthusiasm has been hard to match on the other side. Ed Storey, a retired businessman and developer, formed Citizens for Growth Without Taxation to build support for a pro-casino vote. The group has so far attracted just one donor -- Storey himself, who donated $1,954 and another $3,800 of in-kind contributions.

He rejects the anti-gambling argument that a riverboat casino would blight the capital city's historical identity, noting that the historic cities of St. Joseph, St. Charles and St. Louis each have casinos.

Extra jobs and added revenue are sorely needed in Jefferson City, said Storey, a 50-year resident.

The belief that gambling preys on the weak is simply inconsistent with modern society, he added.

"If that's true, why don't we just abolish alcohol in the state of Missouri?" Storey said.

Whether a new casino could thrive in Jefferson City is unclear. Less than 60 miles away in Boonville, the Isle of Capri Casino draws customers from throughout mid-Missouri. At one point, the Isle of Capri Casino had a series of prominent billboards on U.S. 63 between Jefferson City and Columbia to entice prospective customers.

An extensive marketing study conducted for the state Gaming Commission by two University of Missouri-St. Louis economists also questioned the wisdom of adding more casinos in the state. The January report called Missouri a "mature market" that has "limited growth potential."

That constellation of factors -- a crowded market, seemingly intense local opposition and the absence of a known suitor -- has one antigambling activist scratching his head about Jefferson City's upcoming vote.

"There is no casino company putting a proposal out there. The city isn't seeking one out. There is no public outcry for gambling," said Evelio Silvera, executive director of Casino Watch. "I'm really just perplexed."

Even if Jefferson City voters agree to remove the gambling prohibition, which is now part of the city charter, legislators could render moot the chances of a new casino near the halls of state government.

State House members voted Wednesday to ban new casino licenses for two years, a move that could block proposed casinos from opening in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

The state Senate is considering separate legislation that would ban any more casinos than those already operating or under construction. And an initiative petition being circulated by the gaming industry would limit new casinos to those already built or being built.

Jefferson City voters actually approved casino gambling in 1992, the same year voters approved a similar statewide referendum. But three years later, capital city voters reversed course after a Las Vegas developer that reached a deal with the city to build the Capitol Queen casino was linked to organized crime figures.

On the Net

Citizens Supporting Integrity, http://csijeffcity.com

Citizens For Growth Without Taxation, http://casinojeffcity.com

Missouri Gaming Commission, www.mgc.dps.mo.gov

Missouri Gaming Association, www.missouricasinos.org

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