Lots of people find history interesting — especially when they can see and touch its artifacts — but whether Missouri's casino industry should exclusively pay in the future for the preservation of the state's river-going past is the present point of debate in whether Jefferson City should become home to a state steamboat museum.
The Missouri House of Representatives' General Laws committee took public testimony Monday on bills that included Jefferson City Rep. Dave Griffith's House Bill 869. The bill would create the Steamboat Legacy Fund — a trust funded by a $1 increase to the current $2 per person entrance fee paid by casinos in the state.
The money raised — $35 million-$39 million annually, until a yet to be determined sunshine clause kicks in, said Bob Priddy — would fund the construction and operation of a state steamboat museum in Jefferson City; the excavation of a steamboat wreck and its cargo that would be added with the collection of the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City to be moved to the proposed Jefferson City museum; the construction and operation of a new Missouri State Museum; and renovations to the current Missouri State Museum space in the state Capitol to become its own capitol visitors center and museum.
Priddy is a longtime reporter who retired four years ago and is now lobbying for the Jefferson City steamboat museum project; his business card already says "Missouri Steamboat Museum."
Priddy said after the committee meeting Monday that it would cost $115 million to build a new steamboat museum that would showcase the entire state's history of steamboat travel on the Missouri River. That $115 million total would include $90 million for construction costs, and $25 million to acquire and move the collections of the steamboats Arabia and Malta.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City will have its lease expire in November 2026, and Griffith told the committee of the collection that "it needs to stay here in Missouri." He wants to be sure the state of Pennsylvania doesn't get it, where a museum has made an offer; Pennsylvania is where the steamboats that once traversed the river were built.
The Malta wreck and its cargo is still buried underground, though Arabia Steamboat Museum owner David Hawley brought to the committee a collection of gold buttons from England salvaged from the buried wreck. Hawley said the cargo of the Malta could redefine the history of the fur trade.
He said the current Arabia museum has approximately $500,000 in overhead costs annually — such as from the rent and paying staff — and makes about $1.25 million revenue each year.
Priddy added it may cost $50-$60 million for a new Missouri State Museum.
Missouri Gaming Association lobbyist Mike Winter testified there are "39 million reasons to oppose this legislation."
Even with a sunset clause — which Priddy said is being drafted in a substitute bill that's being crafted — Winter said $39 million is a staggering amount for 13 private casino companies to fund what he said would essentially be a state museum.
Holts Summit's Rep. Travis Fitzwater asked Winter if there could be any middle ground on the issue, such as raising the current $2 casino entrance fee by a lesser amount than the proposed $1.
Winter said the "answer would be no." He asked, "Why shouldn't the funding be broader?" such as subject to state appropriations.
"I don't understand why you have to pay for it," Rep. Ron Hicks, of Dardenne Praire, questioned of the bill's focus on the gaming industry.
Jefferson City's Sen. Mike Bernskoetter has a companion bill in the state Senate that also proposes a $1 increase to the casino entrance fee — which is paid by the casinos.
Winter said if the fee were raised, casinos would have to consider measures such as raising prices for hotel stays and food and beverages. He said the impact could increase taxes by $700,000 for the smaller casinos in the state, and by almost $5.6 million for the largest operators.
A $1 increase to the entrance fee would effectively be a 2-3 percent tax rate increase, depending on the casino property. He added $1 of the current $2 entrance fee goes to "home dock" communities.
Priddy said the industry sold itself to the public on the image of steamboat cruises on rivers, though that's not the reality. The current $2 entrance fee, enacted in the 1990s, has not taken into account inflation, and is only worth $1.17 in buying power today. Therefore, the casinos have been making a windfall of tens of millions of dollars a year, he said; $56 million last year.
Though he told the committee the casinos are following the law, the industry has "earned this opportunity," and he advocated the committee to "let us have a particular segment of all of those funds" for the museum projects.
Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Randy Allen and Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Diane Gillespie briefly testified in support of Griffith's bill. In March, the Cole County Commission signed a letter of support for Bernskoetter and Griffith's bills, and the Jefferson City Council also approved a resolution to support the legislation.