Missouri Senate Committee Hears Arguments On Competing Ozark Casino Plans

Written By T.J. McBride on February 10, 2023
Casino plans in Ozarks argued at Missouri Capitol

Essentially, three arguments were made Feb. 7 in front of the Emerging Issues Committee in the Missouri Senate on plans to build a casino on the Osage River in the Lake of the Ozarks.

One side supports Senate Joint Resolution 14 and its companion House bill to amend the state constitution to allow a 14th state-regulated casino on the Osage River in the Ozarks. Another side seeks to instead allow a tribal-run casino in the Ozarks. A third side made up of residents in the Ozarks doesn’t want any casino built on the Osage River.

All sides packed the hearing room to argue the pros and cons of the competing new Missouri casino plans.

Side 1: SJR 14 seeks a 14th casino in Missouri, on the Osage River

Missouri law allows 13 casinos, all of them technically riverboat casinos that sit on the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. Online casinos are illegal in The Show Me State. There’s been no real effort at the Missouri Capitol to change that.

SJR 14 is a joint resolution from state Sen. Justin Brown. Brown is a Republican who represents District 16. His district was formally in the Lake of the Ozarks, but it was redrawn last year. Nevertheless, he is still sponsoring SJR 14, which contains two specific proposals.

The first is to add the Osage River to the bodies of water where riverboat gambling can take place. The second is to allow a 14th riverboat casino in Missouri, specifically on the Osage River in the Ozarks. Brown defended the merits of his bill before the committee on Tuesday, as reported by Lake Expo.

“This is stemming from the Osage Indian Nation building a casino at Lake of the Ozarks. The problem is . . . we want to be able to at least level the playing field, where we can have a casino there that would be decided by the people and make sure there’s not any unfair competition within the community . . . I think it would be great for the area.”

Mayor says Lake Ozark needs tax money from a casino

Lake Ozark Mayor Dennis Newberry spoke on the merits of SJR 14. He said the Lake Ozark City Board of Aldermen unanimously supports SJR 14 because the tax money is desperately needed in the community.

“Without more revenue like this, we’d have to seek other tax hikes . . . which would go beyond our exception [as a fourth-class city].” (Most cities in Missouri are fourth-class cities. They have populations between 10,000 and 39,000 residents.)

Newberry also said a new casino would create badly needed hotel and convention center space to the Lake of the Ozarks area. With the loss of 10 motels over the past decade, there is currently not enough space to host the type of events that would boost tourism in the area, he told the committee.

Chair of the Emerging Issues Committee, Sen. Tracy McCreery, asked Newberry how a casino would make the Lake of the Ozarks a year-’round destination for tourists. Newberry said the Lake of the Ozarks is growing rapidly, but the area lacks the workforce or housing to fully take advantage of such a boom.

Newberry later told Lake Expo that Lake Ozark has gotten a proposal from a developer that specializes in casino resort projects. The unnamed developer said if a casino was approved, he would bring forward a proposal to build a casino and 500 units of affordable housing for the community. The mayor said the cost of such a venture would be $42 million.

A question of fairness & needed tax dollars

Lake Ozark Alderman Matt Wright read a statement from Lake Ozark Administrator Harrison Fry, who was unable to attend. He said Lake Ozark was a “midway point” between cities that have casinos in Missouri. The only difference between them and Lake Ozark is the rivers that run through them. His argument was that it wasn’t fair to allow casinos on certain rivers and not on others in the state.

Andy Prewitt also spoke to the committee in support of SJR 14. He is a member of the Osage River Gaming group, which seeks a state-regulated casino on the Osage River so its members can invest in adjacent properties and assist in building the casino.

“This casino, if approved and voted on by the people of Missouri, is a win-win, as the tourists will have more fun and spend more money while here, and the permanent residents will have year-’round high paying jobs and tax revenue to help build much-needed infrastructure.”

Prewitt predicted a commercial casino would generate around $2.4 million in local tax revenue per year and $22 million in state taxes annually. The Osage River Gaming group claims the state would not regulate an Osage Nation tribal casino and it would not be subject to paying local or state taxes.

Speakers point out cons of a tribal casino

Ron Leone, executive director for the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, spoke to the committee about the problems of allowing a tribal casino to be built.

“What we have seen in other states is that when they [Indian nations] put up a casino, they put up related businesses such as truck stops, convenience stores and tobacco shops.”

He said his concerns stem from tribes taking over entire communities with no state oversight. Neither the casino nor any of the ancillary businesses would face regulations or taxes by the state, he said. The community would lose millions of dollars.

Side 2: Osage Nation intends to build a casino on Osage River

SJR 14 is in direct competition with the Osage Nation and the casino the tribe wants to build on the Osage River. Interestingly, the tribal casino proposal’s lead lobbyist is Rocky Miller, a former Missouri state representative who previously sponsored a bill similar to SJR 14.

He spoke against SJR 14 and in support of an Ozarks tribal casino, arguing that the tribe makes large contributions to local organizations in areas where they operate casinos. In the Lake of the Ozarks area, the Osage Nation has made donations to charitable organizations; governmental entities, such as the police departments and fire departments; and to other nonprofit groups. In 2022 alone, the Osage Nation donated $160,000 to community efforts in the Lake of the Ozarks area, Miller said.

Tom Robbins, who said he spoke for the tribe, used his time to correct previous statements regarding the Osage Nation building convenience stores and gas stations near the proposed casino.

“We have no plans to build c-stores or sell gas . . . The only tobacco sales that will occur will be in the facility.”

Robbins then went on to push back on the idea that the tribe would not contribute tax dollars to the state and community they operate in.

“Every single casino brings about 1,100 employees, all who pay income taxes . . . and 90% of those employees are local.”

Side 3: How about ‘no casino at the Lake?’

Tim Faber of the Missouri Baptist Convention spoke against adding any casino in the Lake of the Ozarks. He said the choice between a state-regulated casino or a tribal casino was a misnomer.

“What about the option of no casino at the Lake?”

He went on to point out the lack of backing from state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter and representatives Lisa Thomas, Jeff Knight, Haley Willard and Don Mayhew. Each represents the Lake of the Ozarks region, and none of them support a casino in the area, he said.

“The reason . . . is because they are aware that the voters they have been elected to represent do not support the expansion of gambling in their own backyard.”

Joe Roeger agreed with Faber. He said it was wrong to think of adding a casino as a matter of “when” as opposed to “if” because of the precedent it sets. If voters approve the Osage River as a legal body of water to host gambling, then where is the line?

“Why the Osage River, and why only the Osage River? Does this mean that we can expect in a couple years another joint resolution for another river?”

Roeger also voiced concern over a statewide vote. He said it would not reflect the feelings of the citizens who live in the area. 

“It’s not a vote of the people that are impacted. We will be outvoted by the entire state of Missouri.”

Casino would hurt property values and create problem gamblers

Tim Tabor, a resident who said he’s spent his entire life in the Ozarks, said property values would drop with a casino in the area. The lifestyle in the Ozarks has always been family-oriented, and a casino would ruin that, he said.

Mike Egan estimated that 70% of the revenue generated from the casino would come from people in a 50-mile radius. Due to their proximity, up to 20% of the people in the area would become problem gamblers.

He estimated the costs could be around $27 million.

Photo by Shutterstock
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T.J. McBride

T.J. McBride is a Denver-based NBA and Denver Nuggets reporter who brings his in-depth experience to sports betting coverage at PlayMissouri. He is a Southern California native with nearly eight years of experience covering the NBA.

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