Missouri May Put Some Floating Casinos in Dry Dock

Next month, the state votes on whether to allow gambling on 'boats in moats.'

Of all the watercraft in America, this one on the banks of the Missouri River has to be one of the strangest.

It has no motor. It sits on an artificial pond. Even its two-hour cruises are figments of the imagination, since the boat never moves. Even if it did, it couldn't go anywhere because its pond doesn't connect to the river.

Next month, Missouri voters will decide whether this $320 million structure - the Riverport Casino Center in suburban St. Louis - and others like it qualify as riverboats. Their decision, closely watched around the United States, will determine whether the gambling industry gathers a new head of steam here in Missouri or runs smack into a legal sand bar.

The stakes are high. Ten of the state's 15 riverboat casinos, employing about 10,000 people, are permanently moored "boats in moats."

They could close because the state Supreme Court ruled last year that they don't qualify as riverboats "upon" the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, as the state constitution requires. But if Missourians agree to amend the constitution to include boats in moats, gambling could spread.

"If people go to the polls in November and casinos win, they're going to be emboldened," says John Loudon, a St. Louis-area state representative. Efforts to lift other restrictions on casino gambling are likely to intensify.

So far, polls show a dead heat between supporters and opponents of the amendment, known locally as Amendment 9. Supporters are mounting an expensive campaign to get their message out.

"It's a question of fairness," says Michael Brown, media coordinator for Missourians for Fairness and Jobs, a casino-financed campaign. Casinos "did everything right."

Indeed, after Missourians voted to allow limited riverboat gambling only "upon" the Missouri and the Mississippi, the state legislature enacted its own set of rules to determine what that meant. The language included references to artificial basins within 1,000 feet of the main channel of the rivers. The casinos and the gaming commission interpreted that to mean that boats in moats did qualify. And in mid-1996, with the commission's approval, the first moated casinos opened their doors.

"We tried to do our best to make it look like two boats moored at a wharf," says Larry Buck, vice president and general manager of Players Island Casino at Riverport.

But the state Supreme Court would have none of it, ruling that Missouri's constitution didn't allow a "boat in a moat" to be a casino.

"People voted for boats!" says Mark Andrews, driving up Riverport's parking ramp to catch a glimpse of the Missouri River in the distance. "It's not a boat."

Mr. Andrews chairs a grass-roots campaign that opposes Amendment 9 called Show Me the River (a play on the state's legendary "show me" skepticism). He is concerned that allowing boats in moats will lead inevitably to land-based casinos. "Don't come off the river and start spreading across our land," he warns. "We're not Nevada."

But Andrews's campaign remains woefully outspent. Show Me the River has raised $31,000 so far and is trying to put on radio ads. It has gained the support of several regional church leaders, who rallied against the amendment at the State Capitol last week. Meanwhile, the casino-backed group has spent $5.1 million on television ads as well as well as billboards and direct-mail appeals. More than 3,000 casino employees have mounted their own door-to-door campaign to get the amendment approved.

"This is not about gaming," says Frank Oppenheim, president of the Association for Freedom and Individual Rights in Missouri. "This is about the jobs and our families." The average casino job in Missouri pays $26,000 a year plus benefits.

Missourians seem to maintain an ambivalent relationship with their casinos.

In a poll last month for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a local radio station, voters answered differently depending on how the issue was framed. Slightly more opposed the pro-gambling amendment than supported it - 46.7 percent to 42.5 percent - but that was within the poll's margin of error. When pollsters asked the question in terms of lost state income and jobs, a clear majority - 54.6 percent - supported it.

TECHNICALLY, the court ruling and proposed amendment deal only with games of chance. So casinos could continue offering live and video poker, for example. But slot machines (a game of chance) bring in more than half the revenue, and their removal would be a serious financial blow.

There is evidence that gambling ruins some lives. Since 1991, the St. Louis area reportedly has gone from two Gamblers Anonymous meetings a week to 18. And a few high-profile individuals - including a former city councilwoman and county treasurer - have embezzled money to feed their gambling habits.

But the overall impact remains uncertain. In April, a local study found that gambling benefited the state by $759 million last year. But researchers didn't address social costs, such as higher crime or welfare payments, because these were difficult to pin down.

Last week, a new study by the Missouri Council on Economic Integrity found that adding such costs made gambling much less advantageous to Missourians in 1996, costing the state as much as $185 million in higher crime, broken families, and other costs.

"My suspicion is that all of these estimates are conservative," says Representative Loudon, who also directs the council that prepared the study. "When you've got gambling in town, there's just a corrupting influence that doesn't have much limit."

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