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BREAKDOWN: Casinos, The Lake Of The Ozarks Community, And How We Got Here

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Lakeside Casino in the Lake of the Ozarks' Early Days

Trefts, Charles, Charles Trefts Photographs (P0034). P0034-2224. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photography Collection.

Despite years of buzz and bustle, and no shortage of announcements (or proverbial ink spilled) it's still a toss-up as to whether Lake of the Ozarks will someday have a casino. It's one of the hottest topics at one of the hottest recreational boating locations in the nation, and exactly everyone has an opinion on it. But we've found the facts of the matter are still fuzzy for plenty of folks, and no wonder. Two casinos are being proposed, to be constructed under two completely different sets of legal frameworks, by groups literally from two different nations... but only a stone's throw away from one another.

READER POLL: Do you like the idea of a casino at Lake of the Ozarks?

Editor's note: this poll was originally published in Dec. 2021.

You voted:

Today, a resolution in the Missouri legislature — Senate Joint Resolution 14 — receives a committee hearing, with the opportunity for public testimony. The resolution would give Missouri voters the opportunity to change the Missouri Constitution to, put simply, allow a casino to be built on the Osage River.

But how’d this all get started? What does the Missouri Constitution have to do with it? And how many casinos are being proposed, again? Those questions, among many others, continue to swirl around the Lake, and so far as we're able, we though it'd be worth answering them.

So first, a timeline.

From Zero To Jackpot: A Timeline Of (Legal) Gambling In Missouri

Until 1984, every type of gambling in Missouri was off the table. (That’s not to say it didn’t happen anyways: read our story about Lake of the Ozarks’ first casino — long before casinos were legal — here.)

1984 - Horserace Betting & Lottery Legalized

In 1984, horserace betting and the lottery were legalized by voters at the ballot box. Those passed by wide margins: 60% and 70%, respectively.

1992 - Voters Approve Floating Casinos, But The Court Strikes It Down

Then in 1992, the Missouri legislature put in front of voters a change to state statute that would allow casino gambling. Voters approved it, but the State Supreme Court struck it down, saying Missourians would have to change their constitution—not just state statute—if they wanted to allow floating games of chance.

1994 - Floating Casinos Are Finally Legalized

So, in 1994, lawmakers put just such a proposition on the April ballot. It failed by a tiny margin: 0.16% (or, 1,412 votes). They tried again in November. And amid the Republican Revolution in the national election, Missourians decided to legalize floating casinos.

But here’s another way to say it: in 1994, Missourians enshrined into the state constitution a prohibition on casino gambling… unless it was on an excursion riverboat. Just imagine: quaint little jaunts aboard idyllic paddlewheels, with elegant women in big hats and men swirling glasses of amber liquid while willing the roulette ball to stop on red. And the number of casinos would be limited, and the whole thing would be regulated by a state gaming commission.

Isn’t that nice?

Well, of course that’s not at all what Missouri ended up with; rather, over the decades, massive casinos have been built exclusively on the shorelines of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers (per state law), and for the most part you’d assume these were just sprawling buildings. Except, they float.

There was no chance a casino could come to Lake of the Ozarks because it was not on the Missouri or Mississippi rivers.

However, there was a caveat: Native American tribes can operate casinos on their own lands, and if they clear the right hurdles, they can lay claim to ancestral lands in places like Lake of the Ozarks.

2002 - The Osage Nation Tests The Waters

In 2002, the Osage Nation — based in Oklahoma, but with historical roots through much of Missouri — made some noise as though they might try to build a casino at Lake of the Ozarks. But the conservative Lake community pushed back, in a big way, and whether for that reason or another, things quieted down.

2017 - Netflix's Ozark 

Then in 2017, Netflix launched what would become a wildly popular, Emmy-award-winning show, Ozark. A main feature of the first few seasons was the main characters’ machinations to change state law and get a riverboat casino business going on the Lake (for the purposes of laundering money). The process in the show is not exactly akin to real-life, but it’s pretty close. And anyways, it illuminates the enormous hurdles that stand in the way of any private investor(s) who would like to acquire land here and open a casino on that land.

About Those Hurdles...

Wrong River. The state constitution only permits casinos on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. That would have to be changed, either by legislators putting it on the ballot for Missouri voters, or by the investors gaining enough signatures in an incredibly expensive Citizens Initiative Petition to get it on the ballot for Missouri voters. (Lawmakers feel no constraints over the state constitution when it comes to illegally raising Missourians’ fuel tax, like they did in 2021, but that’s a different article.)

13 Licenses. State law limits the number of casinos allowed in Missouri. Currently, there are 13 licenses, and all of them are taken (there are 13 operating casinos in the state). So a casino would have to close or the law would have to be changed to allow more than 13 casinos. And then the Missouri Gaming Commission would have to go through their process that involves making sure the new casino doesn’t compete too much with other casinos (yes, seriously.)

• A Squishy Foundation. The casino would have to be floating—either on the river or in a specially built lake near the shoreline. Actually, this one got pretty much fixed in 2021. The legal definition of an excursion gambling boat now includes a non-floating building that has a couple of water tanks inside it. Seriously. So, no floating building; just a building with water tanks in it. That's probably not much of a hurdle.

...Back To The Timeline

2020 - Osage River Gaming Announces Plans To Build

In 2020, a local group of investors announced that they had plans to work on changing the Missouri constitution so they could build a casino in the Lake area. The group, Osage River Gaming, insisted their casino was all but inevitable. State Rep. Rocky Miller filed a resolution to change the Missouri Constitution to open up the Osage River for riverboat gambling, but it—like so many others—got the 2020 treatment: it never made it through the legislature. The investors went back to planning, began working with lawmakers on a new resolution, and prepared to dig deep (read: $1 million or more) for a Citizen’s Initiative Petition to get the issue directly on the ballot, if necessary.

2021 - The Osage Nation Announces Plans To Build

Then, in the fall of 2021, the Osage Nation made a sudden and bold announcement about a planned casino about Lake of the Ozarks, where they have already acquired land. They’ll have to go through federal processes to turn this patch of rocky Ozark soil from America into Osage Nation jurisdiction. It seems likely they’ll have success with that. There's some debate about whether the Osage Nation can open a full-fledged casino as soon as the U.S. Department of the Interior gives the go-ahead, or whether they would be limited to things like video poker and video slots until the Missouri governor signs-off. But the Osage Nation seems determined to build its casino/hotel/convention center complex in Lake Ozark.

How Many Casinos? Two. Maybe...

So here we are: two planned casinos—with some federal hoops to jump through for one, and a daunting process at the state level for the other—and a community abuzz over the whole thing.

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