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Wyandotte County Gaming Vote June 26

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Photo courtesy the Woodlands
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Fans watch the greyhounds run at the Woodlands. Can slots remedy waning attendance?

By Steve Bell

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kcur/local-kcur-600197.mp3

Kansas City, Kansas – Wyandotte County voters are about to decide on two separate gaming proposals. One would allow a "destination" casino somewhere in the county, complete with hotels and convention facilities. The other would allow a "slots"-only casino at the Woodlands paramutual dog and horse racetrack. Many say without the added attraction the Woodlands will eventually fold.

Last Thursday night, the voice of the Woodlands track announcer echoed through a mostly empty room. About 150 die-hard race fans watched the greyhounds chase the mechanical rabbit around the track.

Woodlands manager Jayme Larocca, says attendance was four to five thousand on a typical week-night in 1989, when the track opened. He says crowd began to dwindle when riverboat casinos came to Missouri in 1994, eventually diminishing by 60 percent. Larocca believes many of those customers will return if voters give their approval to slot machines at the track in the coming election.

"If it doesn't pass," he adds, "we don't quite know what its going to mean. But if it does pass we have a lot of plans for where the casino's gonna go."

Disagreeing with those who say a Woodlands with slots can't compete with a facility offering a wide range of gaming, Larocca also supports the destination casino. He says the combination of slots will give the Woodlands a unique marketing position.

Government leaders of Bonner Springs, Edwardsville and Wyandotte County/ Kansas City, Kansas also support both proposals, as do former mayor Carol Marinovich, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Burea. Several churches, including the United Methodists and American and Southern Baptists, oppose the gaming plans.

Steve Neal is pastor to the small congregation of the Oakland Baptist Church at 14th and Pacific, near I-70 and the 18th Street Expressway. The weatherbeaten paint and sagging rooflines on small, 75-year-old homes suggest that this is a neighborhood where few people can afford trips to the casino.

But Neal says studies indicate that low income groups make up a large segment of the gaming public. "Whether they have the money or not, they're gonna find some money and they're gonna go." In time, he says, the problems develop. Neal is familiar with studies that show bankruptcies increase by 100 percent when gambling becomes legal in an area.

Neal says 45 minutes of internet research will turn up a negative side of gaming that proponents never mention.

"They talk about all the good things that they're going to bring. But statistically other things that are brought with that are higher crime rates, higher bankruptcy rates, sometimes a loss of revenue in neighborhoods, higher suicide attempts. These are all things that we need to look at realistically as we look at all the good stuff they tell us this is gonna bring."

Wyandote County/Kansas City, Kansas Mayor Joe Reardon says he appreciates the church groups' concern, but whatever problems gambling brings already exist in Wyandotte County, fueled by Missouri casinos.

Reardon says the gambling addictions are already there, and the problem is that Kansas, where most gaming has been illegal, has no effective program to help the victims. He says the state spends a total of $100,000 a year to fight gambling addiction. The adoption of the casinos, he says, will create a $17 million gambling addiction program.

Reardon says the main advantages to the gaming proposals are a new $300 million tourist and convention attraction, 2,000 new jobs, and a tax contribution he estimates at $10 million a year -- almost equal to the county's largest taxpayer, GM-Fairfax. He also says gaming can't be stopped, because it is coming to Kansas City, Kansas regardless of the outcome of the election.

With all but one legal challenge behind them, the Wyandotte Nation is remodeling the old Scottish Rite Temple, across the street from City Hall. Reardon says the experts with whom he has consulted believe the Wyandottes will prevail in their one ongoing dispute, which is with the national Indian Gaming Commission. As soon as that matter is settled, Reardon expects the tribe to open a Class II Indian gaming casino.

Reardon says he forsees a win-win situation for everyone - the casinos, the public and the county.

Pastor Steve Neal still doesn't see it that way. He said, "The county may win, with more money. The casinos are definitely gonna win with more money. But, you know, they win because somebody's losing." That, he notes, is the principle behind the gaming business.

Wyandotte County votes on the two gaming proposals this coming Tuesday. In a 1996 referendum, when gaming was illegal in Kansas, 82 percent of Wyandotte county voters favored casino gambling.

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