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Gambling in America's Heartland - 2002-07-05

There was a time those who wanted to gamble legally in the United States had to travel to the casinos of Las Vegas and other cities in Nevada. But as officials elsewhere in the country took note of the revenues generated by gambling, states from coast to coast began running lotteries.

New Jersey then jumped on the casino bandwagon, hoping to lure players to Atlantic City. Gaming establishments were opened on North American Indian reservations, and riverboat gambling came to communities up and down the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Some were revitalized by the games of chance, others weren't so lucky. But gambling is a risk, by definition. Steve Walsh visited one of the newest casino towns in America's heartland, to learn if that city considers itself a winner.

Boonville, Missouri sits on the banks of the Missouri River near the center of the state. Historians point to this community of approximately 7,000 as the site of two Civil War battles; music fans look to it as the birthplace of country singer Sara Evans. For the last six months, mention Boonville, and many people think of "The Boat!"

Boonville's newest attraction, the Isle of Capri Casino, opened for business in December. It's known around here as "The Boat," because the gambling parlor is, technically, a boat. Missouri law requires the state's casinos to be operated on vessels that are docked on the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers. So, the Isle of Capri Casino floats on an island created by dredging a moat along the shore of the Missouri River.

Jeff King, who is the casino's vice president and General Manager, said most of the players live within an hour's drive of Boonville, but the crowds at the slot machines and gaming tables come from all over. "I would say about 8 to 10 percent of our business could be from any state in the country. We've had folks from all 50 states visit the property. We've even had folks from Spain and Canada visit, as well."

Mr. King emphasized all those visitors mean big revenues, for the casino and for Boonville. "In terms of gaming revenue, we'll do somewhere in the neighborhood of between $60 and $70 million on an annual basis, about a 1.5 million customers. To the city, that'll mean about $4.5 million, just for the city's portion of the tax proceeds and that's about one-third of their city budget."

While some Americans are uneasy about using proceeds from gambling to finance education or road improvements, casino officials view a day or night on "The Boat" as an entertainment choice, like going to a movie or a ballgame.

Patrons like Mildred Henry of nearby Columbia, Missouri, say they have simply opted for the slots. "Win or lose, doesn't matter to me," she said. "I still come back because I have a limit. So, I don't lose so much where it'll make me depressed."

In many communities around the country, proposals to bring in legalized gambling have met with stiff opposition, and concerns about crime and moral decay. But in downtown Boonville, a few blocks away from "The Boat," it's not easy to find such negative sentiment. Longtime resident Steve Schuster comes close - sort of.

He said he doesn't give the casino much thought at all. "I really don't feel one way or the other about it, you know, but hey, it's a crowd down there and more power to it, you know," he said.

Elsewhere on Main Street, Donna Shull, a sales clerk at the local discount store and flea market, likes the business the casino has brought to town. "We have a lot of travelers," she explained. "And, then here a while back there was a busload of senior citizens that came from Kansas City. And, there was 38 of them and they were in here for about an hour-and-a-half, and they really did buy."

Hungry travelers to Boonville can get a meal and a beer at the Stein House. Owner George Gurnett noted business has improved since the casino opened, but he's hoping even better times lie ahead. "It hasn't been gangbusters," he said. "We were kind of hoping that we would be so busy we wouldn't even be able to stand it. But I would say we've probably had a 20 percent increase overall."

The major concern raised by residents when the casino idea was first "floated" centered on traffic. But according to Gigi Quinlan McAreavy, a downtown real estate appraiser, congestion around "The Boat" hasn't been a problem.

"There has been no increased traffic that I can tell," she said. "I think people are taking different routes and, you know, the boat is where someone comes in and goes at different times. It's not like you're going to a sporting event where you're in at one time and then out at one time. So, we haven't had any traffic problems and I've watched it."

Those sentiments are echoed by Boonville Police Chief Jim Gholson, who added that increased crime hasn't been a problem either. "We're trying to keep track of that and yet it's still been six months," he said. "We've noticed a slight increase in insufficient funds checks, some petty thefts. But other than that, nothing really major."

But the casino has had a major influence on this fairly conservative community. City Administrator Tracy Walkup said you can see the impact in the local economy. "The greatest impact has been the financial impact," she said. "Many of the doom and gloom prophecies have not come true. We do not have traffic backed up clear to the Interstate, as you can see driving down our Main Street. The traffic is moving through just fine. But, the city is bringing in quite a bit of money every month."

$330,000 a month. A jackpot, certainly enough to lay to rest any concerns, at least for now, about Boonville's new venture.