Casino: Money for Nothing. And, Your Kicks for Free?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Next Tuesday, we'll be voting on the prospect of allowing a Casino to operate in Downtown Cape Girardeau. The Casino subject is pretty near to top of the list in casual conversation around town, and for good reason. It's short term, and long term, implications will affect every person living in the area. But, what I hear most often is "I'm really not too fond of having a Casino downtown, but we need the jobs". Or, a slight variation that ends with "in this down economy, it will help". Some people I talk to are strongly in favor of the Casino and sincerely want to see legalized gambling come to our city. Some are (very) disappointed that we would allow this to happen. And, there are others who find it downright repulsive. Not quite on the order of magnitude of building a Mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City, but putting a Casino close to Downtown Cape is pretty offensive for many who live, work, and worship here. Those who are marginally in favor due to the economic benefits are simply stating "they actually don't support the concept of the Casino.... BUT...."

I'd like to propose that we remove the "but" from the discussion and look closely at the issue at hand. If you peel off the Casino's veneer of outdoor dining, entertainment, and other amenities and look at its main business proposition, it's a Casino. If our core values as a city do not embrace the prospect of hosting a massive facility for legalized gambling, then why is there a "but" attached to any rationale supporting the "yes" decision? If we can't accept the concept of the Casino on its own merits, without reservation, then we have to look ourselves in our mirror(s) and ask ourselves "what are we thinking?"

It doesn't take a marketing genius to figure out that the "hot button" these days is the economy, and the subject of jobs and/or the economy would be the major emphasis in any promotional materials disseminated by the Casino, and its representatives. As soon as they got a nice advertising budget, there was the headline in bold print -- "450 JOBS". And, another print ad making reference to the millions of dollars of revenue the Casino will bring to the region. Yes, these are tough times for many, but using this method of motivation to gain support from a region who's attention is strongly focused on the economy offers an unfair advantage to a "yes" camp that is exploiting it for all its worth. Someone should cry "foul". Gee, I guess somebody just did.

Kenneth Jacobson authored the book Embattled Selves. In his book Jacobson asks the very tough question of what it took for Jews to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust psychologically whole. His first answer, much simplified is "generosity". Those who helped others cope or escape tended to have calmer, saner, postwar lives. Those who acted selfishly suffered later on. That generosity is not just good for you but actually essential for psychological survival is a bit of wisdom that we would all do well to absorb. Jacobson's second key is identity, refusing to let go of who one was before the crisis began. Jews who denied their heritage in order to escape tended to suffer more later on than those who did not.

We need to take a deep breath, pause for a moment (or two... or, three) and think about who we were before the economy went south. Were we not generous? Did we help others? And, could we pretty clearly define our values as a city? Are the goals of a Casino and its supporters consistent with our pre-recession community? Or, are they, in fact, the exact opposite? The economy will fix itself. It may take 2-3 years, but what is 2-3 years to a city that established the first trading post west of the Mississippi?

This city hosts a large number of successful people. People who were raised here -- or, moved here for a variety of reasons. Living in a "small city" has a lot of advantages. Most of us are able to bypass those 45-minute big city commutes. And, if we are forgetful and leave our car in the driveway, unlocked, with the keys still in the ignition, there's a good chance the car will still be there in the morning. After moving here from Kansas City in 1974, I am proud to call Cape Girardeau home. My hope is that the people of this city will rise to the occasion and come to the rescue of their city before surrendering its authenticity and heritage and to an outside entity that has little equity in, or alignment with our city's core beliefs. The Casino will pay $2 million for the property on North Main Street. Half of the proceeds will go toward improving the Broadway corridor. If my math is correct, that's $1 million. I would propose that we take the $1 million dollars needed to clean up the Broadway corridor and break it into 100 smaller pieces of $10,000 each. Then, "invite" some of those who have some level of appreciation for the gift(s) this city and its people have given them and "adopt" a bench or landscaping along the Broadway corridor. My wife and I can pledge the support of 1. We just need 99 more.

Secondly, we have an enormous amount of skill and talent in this region. In every single aspect, we can build something better than what is proposed by the Casino. A better Riverview dining experience. A better entertainment venue. Something that celebrates who we are a city, as opposed to an outside entity promoting an image of itself that we are supposed to believe is consistent with our image of our city. In a fast-paced world where we stand next to the microwave oven and say "Come on, I don't have all minute", our society is shifting towards convenience and multi-tasking more so than pursuing activities that require preparation, patience and intimate contact with others. I have spent my professional life attempting to demonstrate the difference between a dumbed-down, fast food version of an "experience" and something authentic. I have found that almost without exception, people prefer something genuine as opposed to a substitute for a real experience. A lot of people accept something less because a better solution was never presented to them or they didn't know that a better experience was possible. The degradation of the richness and quality of our entertainment and leisure experiences begin when we start believing that a substitute for something real IS the real deal. Large companies (like Isle of Capri, and others) are experts at packaging and marketing. They will put a pretty face on it, make sure the lighting is just right, and make good use of color. They will put the petal to the metal on promotions and offer the allure of excitement and adventure. And, they are willing to bet (pun intended) that a large number of people will accept their version of a Riverfront Experience as genuine, and help fund their endeavor. But, it is a substitute for what could have been if we were willing to work a little harder, and had the patience to plan and develop something authentic.

We have business people, architects, interior designers, builders, developers, chefs, and a handful of people who are just, plain -- brilliant. There are many who live here who have made something from nothing. Or, turned a little into a lot. These are the "experts" that we need to entrust with planning and organizing our city's future. When I was pledging a Fraternity many, many years ago, part of the initiation process was that we had to participate in a "walkout". We would approach a member of the fraternity, wrestle him to the ground, tie him up, and take him somewhere. Depending on whether or not the "walkout" was "formal" or "informal" the member would either get to party all weekend (formal) or taken out to the boonies and dropped off with a dollar and a six a pack of the cheapest beer we could find (informal). Formal walkouts were more popular. I suggest that we identity those with real genius in this city, "walk them out" to a nice facility, lock them up a room together, and don't let the out until they come up with a plan for helping the economy and upgrading Downtown that's better than having a Casino. Some of these guys and gals are in pretty good shape, so we might have to recruit the assistance of SEMOs wresting team to pull it off. But, seriously, IF there is a reason to push the panic button, its not about an economy that will eventually right itself, but, rather, making a quick decision to vote for a Casino based on the current level insecurity and fear. We need to postpone this decision until we've really looked at all the options. We'll still respect our community leaders in the morning. But, they need to get more people involved who like living here, will defend or community's core values, can think "outside the box" and make things happen.

Yes, improving the economy and upgrading Downtown is complicated. But, as Henry Louis Mencken stated "for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat .. and wrong!" Compared to a "home grown" solution, the Casio solution is simple, neat .. and wrong! When we emerge from recession (and, we will), are we going to look back and say that we kept our identity, and generosity? And, sanity? Or, are we going to regret our (rash) decision to put a red dress and lipstick on our city and parade it in front of the Casino operators? I urge you to look at the Casino as a stand-a-lone proposition on its own, without regard to the current state of the economy or the windfall influx of cash it will bring to the city. If you really want legalized gambling Downtown, then you should vote "yes". And, if there is a "but" connected to your considerations in any way, shape, or form -- you should vote "no".

John Selby is a local businessman and Cape Girardeau resident

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