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The Odds Of A Casino On Lake Of The Ozarks Went Up, With Missouri Bill's Failure

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Covid-crippled Missouri legislative session ended last week, and one of the most-buzzed-about bills—at least at Lake of the Ozarks—was House Joint Resolution 87, the bill that would have offered the chance of casino gambling at Lake of the Ozarks. That bill died after a tenacious run, but a group of local investors says casinos are definitely coming to the Lake. It’s just a matter of time and money.

HJR 87 would have put an amendment to the Missouri Constitution on the ballot for Missouri voters this November, adding the Osage River below Bagnell Dam to the list of Missouri waterways on which casinos are permitted. No land-based casinos are allowed in Missouri. State Rep. Rocky Miller (R-124) proposed the bill, arguing it would be a more restrictive version of what a group called Osage River Gambling says is the inevitable alternative. Miller’s HJR 87 would have only permitted (with voter approval) a floating casino between the Bagnell Dam and the Osage River’s confluence with the Missouri River: in other words, no casino could be built on Lake of the Ozarks, which is formed by the impounding of the Osage River by Bagnell Dam. HJR 87 would also have kept the number of casino licenses in the state at the current maximum of 13.

The Alternative

Osage River Gambling had already been working on changing Missouri law to bring a casino (or three) to Lake of the Ozarks, via a Citizen’s Initiative Petition (CIP). A CIP would bypass the Missouri legislature and put a constitutional amendment straight to the voters, and the CIP being floated by Osage River Gambling would have much less restrictive language than HJR 87. Osage River Gambling is proposing adding the entirety of the Osage River to the allowable casino waterways in the Missouri Constitution; in other words, permitting casinos on Lake of the Ozarks. The CIP would also seek to add three new casino licenses to the current state maximum, bringing it up to 16.

Why three new licenses? Osage River Gaming spokesperson Tim Hand says the investors behind the group think Lake of the Ozarks could easily support two casinos, and maybe even three. The Missouri Gaming Commission determines who receives those licenses, and the decision is based largely on whether the newly proposed casino(s) would be in areas where there are no casinos nearby, and whether the new casino(s) might cannibalize sales at preexisting casinos in the region. Hand says his contacts at the Missouri Gaming Commission have indicated Lake of the Ozarks would be a strong contender for a new casino license. Among its strengths: the region already has a strong visitor population from regions outside of Missouri (and thus would not seriously cannibalize revenues at other Missouri casinos, the argument goes) and there are no casinos within even an hour’s drive of the Lake. The nearest is Isle of Capri in Booneville: nearly an hour and a half away.

The investors behind Osage River Gambling had been willing to back Miller’s more-restrictive bill, Hand said (though he admits one investor was reluctant to buy into the idea). Had voters approved HJR 87, the group would have waited for a casino license to come available, which means waiting for a Missouri casino to fail. Not an unlikely occurrence, especially after the strains resulting from Covid shutdowns, but the bill is dead, and Hand does not think it has a strong chance of returning. “We’re going to regroup,” he said, to determine a definitive path forward. The mostly likely route, Hand says, will be to revive the CIP and try for it in 2021.

It’s a plan built for high-rollers: the CIP will cost $1 million, the group expects. But they already have the money set aside. They have also polled the ballot language. “It passed easy: 67 percent,” Hand said. That was with the addition of the Osage River and no new licenses, though; investors expect a CIP’s passage to become tougher with the addition of new licenses. Gaming companies with existing Missouri casinos would oppose it. Still, Hand said, the Osage River Gambling investors are optimistic Missourians would be in favor of a casino or few at Lake of the Ozarks. 

Location & Cost

Investors have their eye on seven locations at Lake of the Ozarks, Hand said. Five of them are accessible by boat (Missouri’s convoluted Constitution allows floating casinos to be within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of approved waterways, hence some of the state’s casinos are on man-made ponds a stone’s throw from the river). But for now, investors are quiet about where those locations might be. The first casino at Lake of the Ozarks would cost $150–200 million to build and would be similar in size to the Hollywood, in Maryland Heights, with about 2,500 gaming positions, Hand said. Investors expect around 750-1,000 (contractor) jobs would result from the construction phase, and the facility would have at least that many full- and part-time employees once in operation. “A majority of the jobs created would be year-round full time with benefits,” Osage River Gambling said in an FAQ sheet about their proposal, adding, “Such a facility would likely be the Lake’s largest employer.” (According to the Lake of the Ozarks Council of Local Governments, Lake Regional Health System was the Lake area’s largest employer in 2019, with 1,009 employees.)

Operating a casino at a seasonal destination like Lake of the Ozarks would be unique, and Hand said operators would likely get innovative, repurposing some of the gaming areas as venues during the winter months. But proponents of a Lake area casino say it may be the anchor that helps shift the Lake of the Ozarks from a seasonal destination to a year-round one, bringing in ancillary entertainment options that could be supported by the increased traffic.

All of those things are years away: first Osage River Gambling wants to be sure the legislature will not be taking up something like HJR 87 in a special session this year. And then they would begin pushing toward a 2021 ballot initiative. The whole thing has an air of inevitability, at least to hear Hand talk about it. “It’s gonna happen,” he said. “One way or the other.”