BOONVILLE — On a Saturday night at Isle of Capri in Boonville, it’s mostly a retiree crowd, many camped at slot machines on the clock-less casino floor. It’s far from the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but it’s a steady pulse in a 198-year-old city short of good news.
“If it hadn’t been for the casino, we would have been up the creek,” said Sandy Stock, owner of Your Money’s Worth Antique Mall, a collectibles consignment store on Main Street, just a few blocks from the casino.
Since 2009, about 1,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Boonville (estimated pop. 8,319), some of which factored into the city’s five-year-average unemployment rate of about 12 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nordyne, which manufactures heating and cooling equipment, was the latest employer to close its plant. The Hostess factory on Main Street closed in 2012, laying off about 80 people. Caterpillar let go more than 100 employees in 2009, and another 200-plus manufacturing jobs were lost in separate plant closings by Fuqua Building Systems (mobile homes) and INDEECO (electric heating and control systems), where weeds as high as two feet have sprouted up through cracks in the abandoned parking lot.
Manufacturing isn’t the only industry threatening jobs in Boonville: Last year, Cooper County Memorial Hospital officials warned the health care provider might have to close due to year-to-year deficits.
Employment numbers at Isle of Capri also have declined since its opening in 2001. But the riverboat casino hotel is still home to more than 400 employees and a source of millions in local tax revenue.
Isle of Capri remains a major employer despite a downward trend in the workforce. In 2001, casino officials pledged to bring more than 800 new jobs to Boonville when it opened with 692 employees, its highest annual total, according to employment figures published by the Missouri Gaming Commission. Last year, Isle of Capri had 463 employees, its lowest level in 13 years.
Isle of Capri spokeswoman Jill Alexander said an economic downturn in 2008 led to the job cuts.
“Over this time period Isle took steps to maintain profitability in the midst of poor economic conditions that impacted regional gaming markets across the country,” Alexander said. She declined to say whether new hirings or layoffs are being considered.
More than 92,000 people visited the casino over the past year, an annual increase of 6 percent. A year ago, attendance had plummeted 18 percent and revenue was down 13 percent, according to state data.
Isle of Capri generated nearly $3.5 million for the city of Boonville last fiscal year through gaming tax revenue and it continued to spill tourists into the downtown shopping district.
“Even before it was built, people would come to see the excavation,” Stock said. “After it opened, sometimes people came just to see what it looked like. They didn’t even go in and it created tourism.”
In the city’s downtown shopping district on Main Street, only five of 54 commercial offices appear to be vacant, a 91 percent occupancy rate that would trump the 87 percent across the U.S. commercial real estate market.
“It looks like our little Main Street has come back to life,” Stock said. “If you’d been here two years ago, it was a lot worse.”
Sales at her store have been strong since January, which Stock credited for lower gas prices that have allowed more discretionary income.
In south Boonville, the situation isn’t so rosy: Four of the nine offices at the Main Street Shopping Center near Walmart are vacant. The remaining tenants include a payday-lending company, the Boonville licensing office and a mental health clinic.
Brittany Cummings, who grew up in Boonville and works part time at a video store on Main Street, said not much has changed since she was in high school, when Nordyne, INDEECO and other plants were open for business.
“Probably the biggest difference in town is you can’t smell the bread anymore,” she said, referring to the Hostess bakery that closed in 2012.
After living in southern Missouri, Cummings moved back to Boonville with her husband for better job prospects and quality of life.
Quality of life was highlighted by Smithsonian Magazine, which recently ranked Boonville No. 9 on a list of best small towns to visit. Editors noted its historic sites, collection of antique Mitchell cars and Budweiser Clydesdales at a ranch 10 miles from downtown. The casino wasn’t mentioned.
Despite the snub, it’s clear that Isle of Capri — known locally as “The Boat,” one of 13 riverboat casinos in Missouri — is the engine behind stability in Boonville, Cummings said.
“If it goes away, there would be nothing here,” she said.