Possible casino concerns Cape bingo organizers

Monday, September 27, 2010
Larry Miller and Heather Small of Jackson play bingo Saturday at Bingo World in Cape Girardeau. (Kristin Eberts)

Local charitable groups are hoping people won't leave Bingo World behind if a casino comes to Cape Girardeau.

"We have heard stories about how casinos up in St. Louis put the bingo halls out of business up there, but down here we just don't know if that will happen. It's very difficult for us to make an assessment," said Robert Basler, president of the board of Clark Street Project, the not-for-profit organization that operates Bingo World.

Bingo World drew nearly 800 people Saturday night, when there was a progressive bingo jackpot of more than $10,000.

Bingo player Cheryl Cavanah of Princeton, Ky., has been driving to Bingo World every weekend for about six months. She used to play at a bingo hall in Paducah, Ky.

"That bingo hall in Paducah holds 350, and it's always full even with a casino just across the river," Cavanah said, referring to the operation in Metropolis, Ill. But she said she prefers bingo to casino gaming and wouldn't go to a casino if one were built here.

Along with offering a chance to win big, bingo is a social highlight for many.

"It's our night out, and we always see people we know," said Sandy Lukefahr of Perryville, Mo.

She said if a casino opened in Cape Girardeau she and her husband would likely alternate on Saturday nights between going to bingo and going to the casino.

It's that attitude that concerns Basler and bingo organizers.

"That bingo player only has so many dollars to spend. So if they spend some of those dollars at the casino, that leaves less for bingo," Basler said.

Members of the Caruthersville, Mo., Lions Club were worried about the effect Casino Aztar would have when it opened there in 1995, said Paul Walker, who was the Lions Club bingo chairman at the time.

"The number of players did not fall off, and because of the restriction on advertising of bingo games at that time we actually had a slight increase in the number of players because, while attending the casino, they became aware of our game" through word-of-mouth, Walker said.

"Some of those players are still to this day playing with us each Monday night," he said.

Bingo is regulated by the Missouri Gaming Commission, the same agency that is considering Cape Girardeau as a finalist for the state's 13th casino gaming license and is holding a public hearing today at the River Campus.

There are currently 350 licensed charitable bingo operations statewide, according to the gaming commission.

Eight organizations have bingo licenses in Cape Girardeau County: the Knights of Columbus Council 1111, Cape Girardeau Elks Lodge, Cape Girardeau Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus Council 6405 in Oak Ridge, Notre Dame Home and School Association and Notre Dame Athletics Booster Club, St. Mary Cathedral Home and School Association, and the Jackson and Cape Girardeau Optimist Clubs. Most of them operate out of Bingo World.

"We are concerned for some of those groups that depend on bingo for profits to fund their local community projects," Basler said. "If they have to give up their night of bingo, they are unsure how they will fund those community projects."

Staffed by the organizations' members, bingo is the main source of revenue for most of them.

Statewide bingo annual gross receipts have steadily dropped $59.4 million since 2000, totaling $102.4 million in fiscal year 2009, according to the gaming commission.

The gaming commission requires bingo licensees to report quarterly their sales of cards; miscellaneous sales of items like daubers; payouts; what they're depositing into the bank; and where money raised through bingo is spent, said Rachel Farr, acting charitable games manager.

Bingo is taxed at a rate of 0.002 percent per bingo card face. Pull tabs, sold by some organizations that also offer bingo, have a 2 percent tax on gross receipts.

In 2009, the state received $2.1 million in tax revenue from bingo; $50.4 million was awarded in bingo prizes and more than $10.5 million was donated to organizations and charities.

Kiwanis Bingo Committee chairman Dan Niswonger said that since the club started holding bingo, it has donated more than $2 million to local organizations and projects, including the Network Against Sexual Violence, Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship, Discovery Playhouse and children's athletic and educational programs. Kiwanis Park was developed with bingo revenue, he said.

"Kiwanis, Optimist, Elks, every penny we make goes right back into the community," Niswonger said. "It doesn't go into corporate coffers."

Bingo revenue from the St. Mary Cathedral Home and School Association provides funds for special projects the school couldn't otherwise afford, said principal Mary Straatman.

Since starting bingo when Bingo World opened in 2001, the revenue has paid for repairs, technology, furniture and equipment at the school. Bingo also helped fund the construction of a new addition at the school, Straatman said.

Tom Reinagel, who designed and built Bingo World, said he studied the bingo industry before marketing the venue to local groups.

If a casino did affect bingo, "I think it will be short term," said Reinagel, who is no longer involved with the Bingo World facility but does volunteer with the Elks bingo on Tuesday night. "Bingo players are unique, and they're good people."

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Pertinent address:

832 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

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