Hitting the jackpot

Boonville finds casino is not a bad bet
Monday, December 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sitting comfortably in his office in Boonville’s new 5,000-square-foot police station, Chief Joel Gholson remembers when the police force operated out of the basement of City Hall.

“It was awful,” he said. “We had all 20 of us coming in and out of the same door.”

The spacious new station was built with more than $1.5 million from city gaming revenue and is the most conspicuous example of the benefits of gambling’s three-year presence in Boonville. It is 25 percent bigger than the old basement headquarters and boasts a training room, gym and enough parking for all of the department’s cars.

The department owes its thanks to the Isle of Capri Casino-Boonville, which celebrates its third birthday today.

After nearly a decade of waiting, the “boat” was launched in 2001, and the first mid-Missouri gamblers eager to play closer to home than St. Louis or Kansas City boarded.

But not everyone was so excited about the venture. While the city’s 8,200 residents were hoping for business growth and more money for city projects, many feared increased crime, traffic and social problems.

Paying off

Each month, the city receives about $385,000 from the casino. According to the 2004 Missouri Gaming Commission report, the $4.5 million the city received in fiscal year 2004 was spent on street reconstruction and other municipal projects.

“The gaming revenue has allowed us to do things we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Sarah Gallagher, the economic director of Boonville.Boonville Public Works Director M. L. Cauthon said that before 2001, the city spent $100,000 each year to repave streets. Since the arrival of gaming revenue, Boonville has been able to budget $300,000 for street work.

Among the largest endeavors is the $1.04 million Locust Street project, completed in May. Four blocks of a narrow street with crumbling curbs and gutters were reconstructed. Cauthon said a section of Fourth Street, between Morgan and High streets, is next on the list.

The city also is planning a new fire station.

Boonville also has money to award grants for specific improvements, such as the $550,000 in loans and grant money for the renovation of the historic Hotel Frederick on Main Street.

Gallagher said she hopes the spruced-up hotel and the opening of the Isle of Capri’s hotel in January 2006 will help make Boonville more of a complete destination and compel casino visitors to stay longer and spend more.

Local business owner Linda Jones said she is moving her beauty salon to the second floor of the renovated hotel when it opens. Her business will expand to a full-service day spa.

“It’s a dream I’ve had for 22 years,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

Sandy Stock, who owns Your Money’s Worth antique store, has also reaped the benefits the casino has brought to town.

“Its presence has definitely improved my foot traffic,” she said. She said many out-of-town shoppers are non-gamblers who drop someone off at the casino. And some gamblers even show up to spend winnings.

There also has been patronage from casino employees who have moved to Boonville. Stock said her worst fear was an increase in bad checks, but she said she hasn’t had one related to the casino.

The verdict on the casino’s impact on business depends upon whom you ask. While some businesses such as Jones’ and Stock’s have been helped by city gaming revenue, others have seen no effects, said Dave Miller, director of the Boonville Chamber of Commerce.

George Xufuris, manager of the Palace Restaurant, said his business was unchanged.

Still, Miller said specialty shops have been most positively affected. What he’s most excited about, he said, is the prospect of casino visitors returning to Boonville to spend money in other ways.

“It is our opinion that the casino has been a tremendous power in the community,” he said.

Crime not impacted

The casino’s influence has not manifested itself in the higher crime rates gaming opponents feared, Gholson said.

Although there might have been a few more drunken driving and expired license violations, the overall rate has stayed the same.

“There have been less than one dozen narcotics arrests in the past three years,” Gholson said. “If there’s any prostitution here, it’s pretty darn well hid.”

Officially, there were 1,309 crimes reported in 2001. Of these, 239 were considered major. As of Nov. 1, there had been 1,024 reported this year, including 125 major crimes.

The statistics do not show an increase in burglary, assaults or vandalism.

Gholson said there were also initial worries about traffic. But new signals on Main Street at Spring and Morgan streets and a 1999 rule change allowing customers to enter casinos at any time has kept visitors from driving around killing time. Previously, patrons could only enter the casino at specific times, often two hours apart.

“A hidden addiction”

There were also worries about compulsive gambling and the ripple effects it can have. The Rev. Mel Eaton, a pastor at Firm Foundation Foursquare Gospel Church, said for some members of the community, it has been a temptation too near to resist.

“I understand that the gaming revenue has helped the community at large, but it has been disastrous for some individuals,” he said.

He said he has counseled people who have gambled away the rent and been unable to support their families.

But Mark Martin, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Boonville, said he has not seen as many problems as in other places. He was previously a pastor in Kansas City, where he said he saw many more problems connected to gambling. In Boonville, “I’ve seen very little effect. It’s pretty much been a non-issue,” he said.

Still, it may be too soon to assess the impact. Arthur Schneider, a family studies specialist at the University of Missouri Extension in Boonville, said it takes several years for increases to appear in the types of social problems seen in gaming communities.

Schneider has been teaching classes for divorcing couples for the Cooper and Howard County courts for three years. Since May 2003, he has asked every couple if gaming is a factor. He said he has only encountered three divorces in which gambling has been a factor, but that represents a higher proportion than in other places.

Chairman Mark Andrews of Casino Watch, an anti-gambling group in Missouri, described compulsive gambling as a “hidden addiction” that isn’t often discussed or addressed. “It is particularly hard to see in a smaller population,” he said.

Casino Watch estimates there are between 60,000 and 100,000 pathological gamblers in Missouri.

Andrews said addiction is most often seen among slot machine players, and casinos tend to add proportionally more slots over time. Slots also do not require the level of employee supervision that table games require.

According to the 2004 Missouri Gaming Commission report, the Isle of Capri offers 27 tables and 907 electronic gambling machines, a slight increase over the opening numbers.

Gaming leads to jobs

Boonville residents also hoped the casino would boost employment, directly and indirectly.

According to the Gaming Commission, Isle of Capri employs 623 people. When the hotel opens in 2006, it is expected to add another 100 employees.

Boonville’s unemployment rate has remained steady at 3.2 percent, its 2001 level, Gallagher said. Yet the town still sees potential for more jobs ahead.

Boonville is in negotiations with Wal-Mart about building a supercenter in the area, which could add between 150 and 200 jobs.

And Nordyne, a manufacturer of heating and cooling equipment, has recently added a distribution center to its Boonville manufacturing facility.

Gallagher said gaming revenue has allowed Boonville to grow and carefully plan that growth. Normally, a small rural community would have to wait for growth and the jobs it can bring.

Still, more public projects have not led to more jobs. Cauthon said that although projects have increased, his department has not added staff, and the workload increase has stretched some of his staff.

City Clerk Kim Justus said the city has not added many employees to deal with the new demands. “I could personally use two more employees in my office,” she said.

Schneider said cities like Boonville might be reluctant to add staff because if the casino leaves, they don’t want to have to lay people off or reduce salaries.

Eyeing the future

Isle of Capri saw 1,208,000visitors in fiscal year 2004 and hopes to grow, but not at a pace uncomfortable for the community, marketing manager Reggie Burt said.

“Isle of Capri hopes to see growth for both the casino and the city,” he said.

The new hotel will have 96 rooms, 23 suites and a large event facility. Burt said the casino wants to broaden its base to make it more of a destination spot.

If the hotel is successful, it could lead to an expansion of the casino to keep up with demand, Burt said.

One place where added revenue could go is toward education.

Boonville R-1 Superintendent of Schools Greg Gettings said school district officials are against a tax abatement the City Council is considering giving the casino for its hotel because it would deprive district officials of their fair share of revenue.

He said schools don’t receive any of the city’s gaming revenue but benefit from the $400,000 the casino pays each year in real estate taxes. The money has helped the schools keep programs and services during cutbacks.

What it hasn’t done is give youths more places to hang out, at least in the view of Boonville resident Stephanie Perkins, who works at a business on Main Street. She said she hasn’t been impressed with the benefits to downtown businesses, either.

She would like to see the City Council spend more of the gaming revenue on residents. She said some of Boonville’s schools have no air conditioning, and children have nowhere to go in town except the local skate park.

Others find it hasn’t changed things one way or the other.

“It hasn’t made a difference,” said Charlene Thomas, who lives two blocks from the casino on Second Street. “I don’t even notice it anymore.”

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