The Star – Wyandotte County approves casino gambling

MEASURES PASS BY 4-TO-1 RATIO – Missouri operators brace for competition: Wyandotte Countians back casino and slots – The approval by the voters could lead to the building of a resort worth $300 million.

Wyandotte County voters did their part Tuesday to help Kansas usher in a new era in economic development by overwhelmingly approving two measures that legalize casino gambling. And while much of the county embraced the prospect of poker tables, roulette wheels and slot machines, Missouri casinos are bracing for the competition this new era could bring. That competition will not only include more slots, but also the trappings of a resort casino worth at least $300 million. It would be another attraction for a county that, with Kansas Speedway and Village West, already has become the state’s biggest tourism draw. The county envisions a casino with a five-star hotel, shops and restaurants that offer unique dining experiences. That resort — expected to open by 2010 and to generate $15 million in gambling revenue and property taxes — would be in addition to the 800 or more slot machines that voters also approved for The Woodlands racetrack. “It’s a complement to what we already have out west,” state Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., said of the casino. “It shows that Wyandotte County is a major player in the metropolitan region in economic expansion. We’re on the map.” Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon noted that the gambling legislation and the election happened so quickly that the government had not had time to determine exactly what it will do with the revenue. He said he is eager to offer property tax relief and shore up infrastructure, public safety and education. Clearly, a potential large new revenue stream was good news. “That doesn’t happen very often in Wyandotte County,” Reardon said. “It offers us the opportunity to do things that we never have before.”

But Kansas Rep. Ben Hodge, an Overland Park Republican who is a longtime gambling opponent, said the state could expect to see more bankruptcies and destroyed incomes as a result of the casino. And he said he is especially concerned about the state owning the casinos. “Imagine for a second Washington, D.C., trying to run a casino,” he said. “We just won’t be able to do it. … I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can handle an industry that’s prone to corruption.” Wyandotte County’s vote came after nearly 15 years of lobbying state officials to give the county the right to decide whether to legalize casino gambling. By about 4-to-1, voters answered “yes” to building a state-owned casino somewhere in the county and “yes” to installing the slots at The Woodlands. Tuesday’s outcome, buoyed by a 23.5 percent turnout, did not surprise the few opponents who bothered to speak out against the two measures. In 1996, the county held a nonbinding gambling referendum that passed with 81 percent of the vote — a fact that may have kept opponents from organizing a serious anti-gambling campaign. While voters have answered the two most pressing questions, others remain: ** Will legal challenges derail the state’s attempt to own and operate the casinos and slot machine “racinos” at tracks? One American Indian tribe that operates a casino near Topeka is considering suing to test the law’s constitutionality. ** What effect will Kansas’ casinos have on Missouri riverboats? Experts forecast a marketing war – and casualties. Kansas’ official revenue estimate predicts a Wyandotte County casino alone could gross as much as $258 million a year. The local market leader, Ameristar Kansas City Casino and Hotel, last year brought in $259 million in a $714 million, four-casino marketplace. New casinos in Kansas are expected to grow the market by attracting business from tourists and others who might not have traveled to Missouri to gamble. But many Kansans are expected to stay home to gamble. Something has to give, and likely it will be the bottom lines of the Missouri riverboats. The last time the Kansas City gambling market had five casinos, one of them, Sam’s Town, went belly up. Meanwhile, the local gambling marketplace might not be done growing. The Missouri Gaming Commission is considering casino proposals in Sugar Creek and Parkville, and the federal courts could rule any day on whether the Oklahoma-based Wyandotte Nation has the legal right to offer tribal casino gambling in a former Masonic temple building in Kansas City, Kan. Because of Missouri’s $500 loss limit rule, Kansas casinos could have a marketing edge to attract high rollers. Missouri casino operators for years have lobbied to repeal the state’s rule that restricts gamblers to losing no more than $500 every two hours. The measure died this spring in a filibuster staged by gambling foes. Missouri casino executives now say they may try to repeal the law at the polls next year. For Wyandotte County, the vote signaled the first major hurdle cleared since April, when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a measure that allows select Kansas counties to vote on building a state-owned casino within their borders. Voters in Crawford, Sumner and Cherokee counties already have approved gambling facilities. On Tuesday, Ford County voters also approved a casino measure, throwing almost 64 percent of their support behind a new casino. Sedgwick County has scheduled a vote for Aug. 7. With most election results in place, the stage is set for casino managers to submit proposals. Wyandotte County officials said they expect to receive at least eight bids for sites from downtown Kansas City, Kan., to land just west of Kansas Speedway. Bonner Springs and Edwardsville also expect to receive bids. Those applications are due within 90 days. The new state law allows each community to endorse the preferred bids, with the state Lottery Commission having the final say on which casino is approved. The Lottery Commission will review and negotiate contracts from prospective managers for each casino. After holding public hearings, a seven-member state Casino Review Board appointed by the governor and legislative leaders will select the winning contractor. The Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission will conduct background checks on the manager and key employees. In places where gambling facilities are approved, the state will receive a one-time “privilege fee” from casino managers, which could yield as much as $80.5 million. The fee for Wyandotte County’s casino operator is $25 million. Pari-mutuel track casino operators would pay a one-time fee of $2,500 per slot machine, with at least 800 slots earmarked for The Woodlands. Wyandotte County hopes to have a state-of-the-art facility that is predicted to create 2,200 permanent jobs and continue an economic resurgence that began nearly a decade ago. Said Pete Levi, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “What’s good for Wyandotte County is good for the entire metropolitan area. … Wyandotte County continues to be a leader in economic development. So it’s hats off to everyone in Wyandotte County.” Author: MARK WIEBE and RICK ALM, The Kansas City Star Section: NEWS Page: A1