[NOTE: This article has been modified since its original posting.]
Fonja Runer has been managing the Homestead Motel for three years. She’s never known a Boonville without a casino. But as the closest hotel to Isle of Capri, the Homestead has certainly seen its share of tourists in town for the riverboat’s bright lights.
Soon, the Homestead will have to give up its claim to proximity. Mid-Missouri’s only casino is well on its way to completing construction on its own $17.5 million hotel and event center set to open May 15.
Construction on the hotel center began in March 2004. Since that time, plans have grown from six floors and 120 rooms to seven floors and 140 rooms. Original plans called for a May 1 opening, but general construction and weather delays have pushed back the date, said Reggie Burt, marketing manager.
The hotel center is part of $1.3 billion in planned or current improvements announced at the Missouri Gaming Association’s annual meeting Wednesday. The gaming association represents the interests of the state’s 11 casinos, which are operated by seven companies. The gaming industry currently employs 11,100 people in Missouri; gambling was legalized in 1994.
Statewide gaming revenue exceeded $1.5 billion in the 2005 financial year when 25 million patrons visited Missouri casinos.
Burt said they predict the new hotel center will draw more people who will stay longer. Currently, most visitors are from Missouri.
“It will turn Boonville into a destination spot rather than a day trip,” he said.
Frank Shore, the City Council representative on the tourism committee, believes the hotel center’s draw will benefit the city as a whole.
“If people have been to Boonville, they’ll see what we have to offer and they’ll come back,” said Shore . “Any time you can bring people into town, you’re ahead.”
Burt said the casino may consider expansion in the next couple years, as warranted by the anticipated increase in patronage. The event center, which will seat about 800 people theater-style, will be an added incentive.
“We hope to draw A-type entertainment,” Burt said.
Burt isn’t worried about the effect his hotel will have on existing establishments. If anything, he said, he sees the increased patronage as beneficial for everyone. There are always more people in the casino than can stay there, he said, and overflow is always sent to other area hotels.
“I think initially they will feel an effect, but over time, it will flatten out and be pretty much how it is right now,” Burt said.
It’s a point Runer echoes. At the Homestead Motel, which has the 18 rooms closest to the casino, as much as 50 percent of clients are casino visitors, and many are regulars. The motel, one of the only places in town that doesn’t change its weekend rates, draws people looking for a clean, comfortable and inexpensive place to rest near the casino, she said.
Many clients are new casino employees adjusting to Boonville and looking for a temporary place to call home.
The new hotel center, which may beat out the Homestead in proximity, doesn’t pose a threat, she said.
Runer believes it will be the higher-priced motels that lose business, because the Homestead has something she doesn’t think the new Isle of Capri hotel will offer — low prices. A night at the Homestead runs between $32 to $39.
“People are always looking for a bargain,” Runer said.
Mayor Danielle Blanck said it is those higher-priced hotels that have voiced concerns about their new neighbor, but she compared the situation to the discussions before Isle of Capri came to town.
“Before the casino came to Boonville, people were afraid of traffic and crime problems, but neither of those have happened,” said Blanck. “Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Rick Thawani, the owner and general manager of the Comfort Inn, isn’t sure what will happen. He will also wait and see how the new hotel’s marketing strategy affects his establishment.
“Our goal is to work with the casino, not against them,” Thawani said. “We want to market Boonville. As long as we continue to work as a team, we’ll all thrive and survive.”
Even the smallest of lodging establishments can agree to that point. Just ask Sheryl Birdsong, owner of the Remember When Bed and Breakfast, which in its two years of operation has never seen a single casino guest.
“I believe there’s plenty of room for the entrepreneur,” she said.