Residents bet it all on casino

Amendment 1 proposes jobs for some, but others contend it will hurt image.
Sunday, August 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Heading south on U.S. 65 toward Branson, huge billboards tout the headline acts on stage at the live show capital of the world: Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Andy Williams. Presley’s Country Jubilee.

There are no billboards after the exit for Rockaway Beach. But nine curving miles east of the highway, as the two-lane blacktop enters the dried-up resort town on the White River, visitors are greeted by an assembly of signs with a singular message: “Yes on Amendment 1.”

The hotels and motels that line the main drag of Rockaway Beach have seen better days. Their decor recalls another era, when the southwest Missouri town was a popular vacation retreat.

“You’re in outright, dead-downtown, beautiful Rockaway Beach,” resident Chuck Walters said last week as he drove his pickup through the town with a population of 577. He pointed to the marina, where a few docked boats bobbed quietly in Lake Taneycomo, which was created when the White River was dammed in 1913. It is the height of the summer season, Walters said, and you’d hardly know it.

Walters is on the forefront of a statewide campaign that would allow Rockaway Beach to have a casino. Amendment 1 would enable the town to join communities on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in legal gambling.

Dick Collier of Kimberling City browsed the Tackle Surplus bait shop on the main drag, recalling the days when he and other kids from Springfield used to speed in their muscle cars to Rockaway Beach, where they would inevitably get stuck in all the traffic headed into town.

“This used to be the Daytona Beach in Missouri,” said T.J. Roach, who works at the bait shop. When the Table Rock Dam was built in 1958, water temperature in Lake Taneycomo plunged, and the vacationers went elsewhere. Roach said she has been steadily giving out pro-Amendment 1 stickers and lawn signs that are kept in a pile behind the counter. “I’ve never voted a day in my life,” she said. “But this year I’m going to.”

Her sense of urgency echoes what many in the small town feel.

For the past nine months, Kat Myers has owned Kat’s Warehouse next door to the bait shop. She said the casino is a last-ditch effort to bring life back to the area, and arguments that the casino would corrupt the region’s family values are misguided.

“If you have a job, you can better yourself,” she said. “If you don’t have a good job, you’re going to try to take shortcuts to make it — and that’s bad for family values.”

Collier believes a casino would be good for Missourians beyond the community of Rockaway Beach because it would “bring up wages for working people” and stimulate tourism. “I believe in family values, but I believe a lot of forefathers in Branson are trying to squelch this here to keep wages down,” he said.

Stopping in the Beach Cafe on Wednesday evening, residents Don and Betty Burche reiterated the town’s need for revival.

“We’ve tried everything to bring back this town,” Don Burche said. “Everything from balloon rides to pig races.”

The Burches are on the Rockaway Beach Gambling Committee, which has been campaigning locally in support of Amendment 1. The couple is also featured in pro-amendment advertisements into which Missourians for Economic Opportunity, the pro-amendment group, has funneled almost $11 million. The primary investor in the proposed casino, Rob Low of New Prime Inc., a Springfield-based trucking company, alone has contributed almost $10 million.

“We think it all boils down to money,” Betty Burche said. “There are those who genuinely don’t believe in gambling — I don’t fault those people at all.” Yet others are not being forthright about their objections to a casino in Rockaway Beach, she said.

Walters, chairman of the Rockaway Beach Gambling Committee, was instrumental in getting the ball rolling on bringing a casino to his town. Walters said he and fellow resident Denny Howard spent hours researching casinos in communities such as St. Joseph, Boonville and Caruthersville.

“If we brought something, we wanted to make sure it was something we weren’t sorry we had brought,” Walters said. In the five communities they visited, Walters said, they heard positive feedback about the addition of the casinos.

After bringing the idea to the town for two initial votes, Walters and Howard led the way in looking for a developer. Southwest Casino and Hotel Corp. of Minneapolis offered a proposal, which 84 percent of Rockaway Beach voters approved. That’s when Low became the principal investor.

“The whole thing is being built and being done because it’s about people, not about greed or wealth or power,” Walters said. “It’s about people’s needs.”

Southwest Casino promises to revitalize and renovate the Rockaway Beach downtown as part of its plan. When concerns were raised about unfair competition with local hotel and motel-owners, Walters said, developers took the casino hotel out of the plans and struck a deal to pay motel owners $10,000 per unit to renovate and refurbish their facilities. In exchange, the owners will eventually pay the casino back through guests’ stays. Jim Druck, president of Southwest, has presented plans to the community.

“We all believe that Jim Druck and Robert Low have the people in this town at heart,” Walters said. “Don’t get it wrong — they want to make money. But they’ve listened to what we’ve needed and haven’t hesitated to comply.”

In a nondescript office building outside of Branson, the corporate office of Herschend Family Entertainment features anti-gambling sign on its front door. The company owns Silver Dollar City, just one of the attractions that pulls more than 7 million people to Branson every year who spend an estimated $1.7 billion.

Peter Herschend, the vice-chairman of the company, says a casino in Rockaway Beach would have a dire impact on Branson. Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., Silver Dollar City and members of the Herschend family have contributed more than $1 million to Show Me You Care, the campaign committee opposing Amendment 1.

Herschend cites a survey of visitors the company recently conducted. Of 525 respondents, Herschend said, 27 percent said they would be more likely to visit if there were a casino in Rockaway Beach, but 36 percent said they would be less likely to visit the region. The survey also suggested an 18 percent decrease in families with children visiting and a 10 percent decrease in visitors from other states, Herschend said.

Family is an essential ingredient of Branson’s brand, Herschend said. It’s unlikely people would think to take a family trip to Las Vegas, he said, and the same thing would happen to Branson if there was a casino in the vicinity. “Does that sound like a family-friendly image?”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Palacios family of Austin, Texas, waited for the free shuttle to take them from the parking lot in to Silver Dollar City. Daniel and Carolina Palacios have brought their three children to the Branson area every year for about five years, and said the kids love it.

“The only reason we come here is it’s a fun, friendly, Christian place,” Carolina Palacios said. “I was very disappointed to hear that Amendment 1 was trying to be passed. I would totally be against it.”

Reflecting some of the advertisements run by casino opponents, Herschend said approval of gambling at Rockaway Beach will soon put pressure on other cities to allow gambling.

“What happens to patronage of the casino at Rockaway Beach then? I imagine the answer is evaporation,” he said. “Then where are the good people of Rockaway? They’re left holding the financial bag.”

But William Harmon of Springfield, using his season pass to visit Silver Dollar City for the seventh time this summer, said he didn’t think a casino would hurt Branson because it’s already so well established. He said he would vote yes on the amendment because of the support in Rockaway Beach.

“They seem to think they need it,” he said. “When they dammed the river, it hurt them. They need something.”

At the Grand Village in Branson, Don and Dianne Hahn of Las Vegas were on a two-month vacation in their motor home, traveling from Nevada to Canada. Dianne Hahn has always wanted to see Branson, so they stopped for three days.

“We were shocked — we expected a cow town. It’s a very nice place,” Don Hahn said. If there was a casino in Rockaway Beach, Hahn said, the town would “quadruple” their visitors. “The shows would be primary and the gambling would be secondary.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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