April 15, 2010
When my seventh-grade Missouri history teacher divided the class into teams to debate issues, Hollis Headrick and I took the pro side of whether the state should legalize casinos. Our research turned up photographs of next-to-naked Las Vegas showgirls who represented the best argument our testosterone-pickled 13-year-old brains could think of. Of course our teacher, Ms. Wilferth, wouldn't allow us to show the pictures to the class, and we lost the debate.
Though showgirls are still rare, casinos are now commonplace in the state. Many states have become dependent on gambling revenue to pay for essential services. Once the moral reservations were overcome, states looked on gambling revenue as easy money. All they had to do was watch the green river flow.
Because a casino license will become available in the state July 1, some in Cape Girardeau are talking about how a casino could transform our neglected downtown. A gaming company is interested in bringing a casino in.
My objection to bringing a casino downtown is neither moral nor religious. I object to the effect a casino could have on the quality of life downtown, which is where I live.
Some downtown business people think a casino could be downtown's salvation, the anchor that's been missing. They genuinely believe that to be true. A captain of a ship chooses his or her anchor carefully.
Twenty years ago, putting casinos in riverboats was a disingenuous ploy aimed at making gambling more palatable to the Midwest. It was supposed to be a pleasure cruise with dining and a little gaming on the side. If we didn't know better then, now we do.
The Wall Street and banking fiascos came about because financial wheelers and dealers gambled with money they didn't have and lost. A worse gamble for Cape Girardeau would be to risk our quality of life.
In "It's a Wonderful Life," an angel shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would have become if he had never been born and have never run his family savings and loan. Bedford Falls turned rough and tumble under the thumb of a greedy banker.
Cape Girardeau wouldn't become a den of sin if a casino moved in downtown. But almost overnight, empty storefronts downtown would blaze with the neon promises of businesses that make loans at usurious rates. And the casino, now the major player downtown, would financially back mayoral and city council candidates who favor its point of view. What the casino wants, the casino gets. But is that what we want?
We like to gamble, some of us more than others. We like to think we're lucky, that we were born under a good sign. I think the people of Cape Girardeau were born under a good sign. We already are lucky.
Cape Girardeau's downtown just needs some love and attention. A boutique hotel would help. Many visitors come downtown looking for a place to spend the night and discover that all the rooms except the B&Bs' are out on Interstate 55, where Cape Girardeau resembles every other city in the U.S.
Cape Girardeau has the best live music scene between St. Louis and Memphis. Some people drive 100 miles from Paducah, Ky., on weekends because this is where the live music is. Live music can be heard downtown almost any night of the week. Let's promote that.
"There's a hole in daddy's arm where the money goes," John Prine sings. A casino is the same kind of hole.
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.