River Town Places Big Bet on Boat

Awash in Cash

It arrived behind a tugboat, hauled up the Mississippi from New Orleans, towed between the banks of the Ohio to an iron dock in the eye of this river town.

People left their tidy homes and shops that day to climb the grassy levee, to gather at the landing where their forebears loaded flatboats with apples, oats, molasses barrels, and hickory brooms to sell in Southern markets. They came to see what the river brought back.

The Argosy VI, which opened here last weekend, is the world's largest riverboat casino. Its twin smokestacks and painted shutters evoke the halcyon days when Lawrenceburg was a hub of waterborne commerce. But its sonar beacons and craps tables tell another story.

Like at least 15 Midwestern river towns, Lawrenceburg, Ind., has discovered the economic power and controversy riverboats bring. The Argosy's smaller predecessor has already pumped $10 million into city coffers since December, but residents remain deeply divided over the casino's civic value.

In years to come, Lawrenceburg could either become an example of a stagnant town that returned to prosperity by embracing its river heritage, or an improvident place that traded its moral compass for new sewers and sidewalks.

"The added revenue has been beneficial, no doubt, but gambling is not my cup of tea," says Melvin Gabbard, Lawrenceburg's mayor. "I've given [the drawbacks] some serious thought and they've been troubling to me, but I've come to this conclusion: Most of the people on these boats enjoy it, and I'm not going to sit here and say that's wrong."

Choosing to bring riverboats to Lawrenceburg was one of this town's most wrenching moments. In a 1993 referendum in Dearborn County, riverboat backers triumphed by fewer than 200 votes. Opponents argued that gamblers would destroy the town's tranquility and expose its 4,700 residents to the dangers of compulsive wagering.

Although social workers here report a small increase in the number of locals seeking help for gambling problems, and parking spots have become scarce, many residents have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. "People grump about the traffic and construction, but I don't hear too many of the moral arguments anymore," says Chris McHenry, a local historian.

Gambling revenue has already allowed the city to rebuild its municipal water system and electrical grid, and the Argosy's owners have repaved roads and attracted several new restaurants and hotels. The city has begun a $4 million project to replace streets, curbs, and sidewalks. "The money for infrastructure has been a godsend," says Roland Horney, Lawrenceburg's municipal development director. "We had to make some of these improvements anyway, but without the gaming revenue it would have been a huge burden on taxpayers."

To Shelby Cummins, a local barber, the riverboat is nothing but good news. It's even a source of pride, he says, for a town with a history of high living. In the 1950s, he says, there were two bookies in town and nearly every restaurant or tavern had a back room with an illicit slot machine.

The town's old "Gambler's Row" was a thriving destination until a 1937 flood forced civic leaders to bury it under a levee, says Ms. McHenry. Lawrenceburg's main source of jobs for more than a century, she notes, has been the distillery business. Seagram still operates a factory here. "People know that we are no longer a regional trading center and the factories won't keep coming," she says. "In order to grow, this town has to reinvent itself."

But to riverboat foes, Lawrenceburg's casino is a civic time bomb. There is little indication that visitors spend any significant amount of time or money at local businesses. Even the boat's owners, they note, only forecast about five years of increasing profits.

Critics like the Rev. Wayne Haun, a pastor at the First Baptist Church here, argue that the effects of gambling won't be evident for years. Although he's already seen several marriages end in quarrels about gambling, and met one elderly man who canceled his supplemental Medicare insurance to support his slot-machine habit, Mr. Haun says he's most concerned about the boat's impact on future generations.

With so much revenue pouring in, Haun worries that the city will become lax in its efforts to recruit new businesses and expand its economic base. He's also concerned that the riverboats instill a skewed set of values in the town's children - putting glitz above substance, easy money above hard work and careful planning. "I hear a lot of [high school students] saying they can't wait to work on the boats," Haun says. "When you've raised a generation of children who only hear about the good things the riverboat does, you have to be concerned about the future."

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