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Family-friendly Branson worries about a proposed casino
ROCKAWAY BEACH, Mo. -- Branson's main industry is wholesome, family entertainment. Think Andy Williams and The Osmonds.
Branson business leaders say they fear it could all be spoiled by the ringing of slot machines, the rattle of dice and the snap of a well-shuffled deck of cards.
Rockaway Beach, 12 miles away, has proposed construction of a casino that promoters say would bring year-round jobs to the economically depressed town of 575.
Business owners and entertainers in Branson say gambling nearby could destroy Branson's image and chase away customers.
"One of the reasons we have been vocal in our opposition is a concern that the image of Branson -- the brand, if you would, if you use marketing terms -- is one in which these words are all in place: wholesome, family-oriented, good entertainment," said Peter Herschend, whose family owns Silver Dollar City and other Branson-area attractions.
In Rockaway Beach, folks say the image of casinos as havens for mobsters and retirees plunking their savings into slot machines is outdated. And they say Branson is simply afraid of the competition for tourists and employees.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, Rockaway Beach was the area's plum destination, drawing fishermen and other vacationers to Lake Taneycomo, created by the damming of the White River. Things reversed in the 1990s, when Branson boomed with music theaters, shopping malls, restaurants and hotels.
Branson, population 6,500, swells every year between April and December with 7 million tourists who come to hear crooners such as Williams. It is a favorite of church groups, families and retirees. Veterans are saluted at nearly every theater.
The fate of the proposed casino rests with Missouri voters.
Missouri already has 11 casinos, but the state constitution allows them only along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. A constitutional amendment on the Aug. 3 ballot would allow one more along the White River.
Southwest Casino and Hotel Corp., the Minneapolis-based company selected as the preferred developer for the Rockaway Beach project, promises to bring 1,000 jobs that will pay $9 an hour, plus medical and dental insurance.
"From the very start, our only concern has been getting year-round jobs with good pay and good benefits," said Chuck Walters, who owns Rockaway Beach Marina and has helped lead the gambling effort.
Taney County, which includes both communities, had 3.4 percent unemployment in October, well below the state's 5 percent. But it climbed to 19.1 percent in January, when the theaters in Branson close until spring.
City leaders in neighboring Walnut Shade, Merriam Woods and Ozark also support a casino.
Victoria Schu, 45, is struggling to eke out a living on the $6.50 an hour she earns making pizzas at La Pizza Cellar in Rockaway Beach. It is part-time work with no insurance, but the owners let her eat for free.
For now, Schu is living in a cottage with a kitchenette and bed. The cottage once was used for vacationers during the town's heyday.
"This place is gorgeous, and it's sad to see the shape that it's in," Schu said. "A casino would help turn things around for a lot of people."
Catrina Myers opened a small variety store on Rockaway Beach's main street in hopes of adding to her husband's income as a construction worker. She extends credit to some residents so they can get the staples -- toilet paper and detergent -- they need until payday.
Myers tried working in Branson, but most of the jobs she found were part-time, minimum-wage with no benefits, she said.
"You can't afford to pay a baby sitter, put gas in your car and drive to Branson for six hours of work a day," she said. "There are a lot of people here who work two and three jobs."
Cindi Barr, whose company books group trips to Branson, said a casino would help the area.
"A lot of people ask whether there is a casino," she said. "When they find out there isn't one, they sometimes ask to be routed through Kansas City or St. Louis."