Lake of the Ozarks is more than just the setting of the hit Netflix series. It’s also the center of attention for expanding Missouri casino gambling on multiple fronts.
State legislators and the Osage Tribe have their eyes on the popular summer destination to open a new casino. And both have separate routes to fulfill their goals.
Local authorities and residents have mixed feelings, supporting one, both or neither. We’ll examine all of these elements below.
Osage Tribe gets the ball rolling
Missouri is currently home to 13 casinos. All of them sit either on the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. Missouri online casinos consist only of social or sweepstakes casinos, which do not use real money.
The Osage Nation, headquartered in Oklahoma, purchased land in Lake Ozark in June 2021. The tribe announced plans to build a $60 million casino, hotel and entertainment complex in October. It operates seven casinos in Oklahoma. It has expressed a desire to open a property in its ancestral homelands of present-day Missouri.
State Sens. Mike Bernskoetter and Justin Brown were among those in favor of the new venture, both showing excitement about the tribe returning to its roots.
Now, the Osage Nation awaits approval from the US Department of the Interior to continue with its plans. As a sovereign nation, it does not adhere to local or state gaming laws. That includes the taxes and regulations imposed on other state-licensed casinos.
The tribe still pays taxes on payroll, Medicare and Social Security. It has donated more than $100,000 to local efforts in a show of good faith and to develop positive relationships within the community.
Bill introduced to ‘level the playing field’
By the end of 2022, support grew for a separate, state-licensed casino proposal in Lake Ozark. However, state law allows for only 13 casino licenses, meaning Missouri citizens must vote to amend the state constitution to add any more.
Although Brown supported the tribal casino, he also took the reins in sponsoring a joint resolution between the state House and Senate (SJR 14 and HJR 23). He said another casino license at Lake of the Ozarks could “level the playing field” alongside a tribal casino.
“I’ve been asked by residents, business owners and local elected officials from the lake area to sponsor this bill. With all the talk of a casino at the Lake of the Ozarks, they believe that residents of Missouri should have a say in whether we should have a casino at the lake or not.”
If both branches approve the bills, the issue will be on the ballot in 2024. The Lake Ozark Board of Alderman unanimously approved the resolutions and is asking voters to do the same.
Lake Ozark Mayor Dennis Newberry echoed Brown’s sentiment on adding a commercial casino in the Ozarks, while acknowledging the likelihood of DOI approval after the Osage Nation secured land on which to build.
“If we can’t stop (a tribe) casino, but we can support another casino that brings a hell of a lot of taxes? I don’t think it’s up to this board to say no. I think it’s up to the citizens of Missouri to say that.”
Looking at the numbers
The most vocal argument for a state-regulated retail casino centers around the potential for local tax revenue. Missouri’s 13 riverboat casinos pay a 25% tax on all gaming revenue, whereas the Osage casino would pay zero.
Brown claimed a retail casino on the Osage River would generate $100 million in annual revenue, resulting in $25 million in state and local tax. However, only 20% stays local, meaning only $5 million would go to city and county governments.
Osage Nation CEO Kimberly Pearson said the tribe would outdo that $5 million in local investments and is already doing that in other communities in Oklahoma. She cited philanthropic efforts within the local community, including donations to schools, law enforcement and charities.
However, she also mentioned job creation and wages in benefits among those statistics, which may be smaller than a retail casino would generate.
According to Tim Hand of the local pro-casino group Osage River Gaming, a tribal casino would create 240 new jobs versus 700 from a regulated retail casino. The group claims Osage’s donations do not come close to what a retail casino could produce.
Local concern about unfair advantages, ‘incidents’
As for locals, opinions vary.
Lake Ozark already has a party-centric culture but is still family-friendly. Local resident Terry Taber thinks casinos would compromise that environment and not help other businesses in town.
Former mayor Rick Moss believes a large casino could outcompete local businesses and drive them out of the market. Due to its tax-exempt status, the Osage Nation can go one step further, undercutting prices against local companies, such as gas stations and retail stores.
Mount Rocky resident Michael Egan said any casino could be trouble for the community.
“The culture of the Lake of the Ozarks is a family-oriented tourist destination, and it would be irreparably damaged by drugs, prostitution, economic disaster and allocation of finite resources to infinite problems.”
Another resident, Lorie Chittenden, said she had seen crime increase as tourism has grown. If a casino enables tourism to keep growing, crime will follow.
However, representatives from Kansas City said they did not see crime rise in casino areas.
Additionally, tribal casinos had less crime than commercial venues, even without requisite oversight from local law enforcement. Osage casinos, Pearson said, always works with local officers.
Casino presents solutions to other challenges
Although Lake Ozark boasts a population of just over 2,000, millions of people come to its shores each year as one of the Midwest’s premier vacation spots. Its popularity has ballooned since the pandemic, setting records with more than 10 million visitors each in 2020 and 2021.
This leaves 2,000 people to front the town’s bill for 10 million visitors’ worth of infrastructure to maintain, which is even harder to do with a seasonal business.
Newberry said he expected about $2.5 million in additional tax revenue each year from a retail casino, a “hell a lot of money” that could go to sewage, roads, education and other improvements.
Casinos also provide year-round opportunities for tourism and employment. Without these opportunities, people seek jobs elsewhere, leaving local businesses needing help. Many close their doors due to low foot traffic and no labor, creating a cycle that residents like Tyler Dixon hope to break.
“It’s my opinion that year-round employment is scarce for individuals like myself. With a 3-year-old at home, my main priority is to maintain sustainable income for her throughout the year. I believe this proposed casino and convention center will provide individuals like myself the opportunity to year-round employment and growth within that employment. Giving us the ability to provide and grow with our families that is so important.”