A casino could be coming to the Lake of the Ozarks, according to the spokesman for the investment group behind the efforts. "It's gonna happen one way or another," Osage River Gaming spokesman Tim Hand said.
Current Missouri law only licenses 13 casinos, and they must be within 1,000 feet of the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. These two constraints — limited licenses and geographic rules — are preventing Hand's group from opening a casino at the Lake of the Ozarks, but they are trying to get around this by amending the Missouri Constitution.
If one of the 13 casinos shuts down, its license becomes available, and the Missouri Gaming Commission awards the license to another group. The last time this happened was in 2009 when the President Casino in St. Louis closed.
Osage River Gaming formed around that time in hopes of getting the laws changed and earning a license. Hand said the group is made up of a half-dozen "affluent business people" who own businesses in the Lake of the Ozarks area. The only known members of the group are Hand and Steve Kahrs, co-owner of Osage Catfisheries.
The group didn't apply, and the license went to a casino in Cape Girardeau due to its untapped market and distance from existing casinos.
"We looked at that, and we said, 'Wow,'" Hand said. "The lake is a way more affluent tourist mecca than Cape Girardeau."
Hand said Osage River Gaming believes four casinos in Missouri are underperforming, with two of those are in especially poor shape.
He named three of the four with the St. Jo Frontier Casino in St. Joseph, Century Casino Cape Girardeau and Century Casino Caruthersville, and Hand gave enough information to safely determine the fourth is the Mark Twain Casino in La Grange.
Those four casinos are the four smallest in Missouri by admissions, patrons and adjusted gross revenue. "You have this little property taking up a license, generating very little revenue for the state when that license could be here," Hand said.
"We fully expect one of those properties, at least, to close its doors because they're just in a market where there's not enough population to support it," Hand said. The group believes a license will be available in three to five years.
These claims were disputed by the general manager of the Century Casino locations in Cape Girardeau and Caruthersville, Lyle Randolph.
"We don't believe they're underperforming," Randolph said. "We think, for those markets, they're doing very well."
Randolph emphasized he is not interested in giving up his casinos' two licenses, and they are not available. He referred back to the Missouri Constitution's geographic rules that prevent Osage River Gaming from opening a casino. "What they're talking about is speculative anyway," he said.
Osage River Gaming has been active in attempting to amend the Missouri Constitution, which would require a statewide vote.
In the 2020 legislative session affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Osage River Gaming was behind a proposed bill that would have prompted a statewide vote to decide if casinos could be on the part of Osage River north of Bagnell Dam.
The bill didn't make it onto the floor during that session, and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, termed out of the House.
Hand said Osage River Gaming now has several other legislators lined up who are interested in sponsoring similar bills, although he wouldn't name them, saying they requested anonymity.
"We're confident one of them, or several, will sponsor a bill next session," Hand said.
Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon, opposes legislation that would allow a casino at the Lake of the Ozarks. Pollock said she is against any future bills because there is already a labor shortage, and a casino could bring an increase in crime.
"We don't have employees to fill the jobs that we have now," Pollock said. "What's it going to do to the rest of the economy? To the rest of our small businesses?"
Pollock estimated the majority of residents at the Lake of the Ozarks are opposed to the casino, and she is against the measure because she wants to represent her constituents' conservative values.
"I'm all for economic development," Pollock said. "I just don't want to bring trouble to our beautiful lake."
According to Hand, the proposed casino would bring in about $100 million of new net revenue for the Lake of the Ozarks economy and provide at least 700 jobs permanent jobs. "It's hard to vote against that, I think," Hand said.
Despite the opposition, Hand said he thinks the General Assembly will pass the bill, which will likely be similar to Miller's bill, in the next session. Hand mentioned language might be added to increase the number of licensees.
If legislation that adds licenses is signed into law, Hand said he believes Osage River Gaming will apply and be granted the license in less than six months. "By the end of next year, you'll see a project underway," he said.
An initiative petition is the other way to get the proposed constitutional change on the ballot, although it would cost more than $1 million and require thousands of signatures. Hand said Osage River Gaming has been prepared to begin the initiative petition process for several years, and it will resort to it if the legislation doesn't pass in the next session.
The measures in the initiative petition would be much more expansive than the proposed legislation language. Hand said it would increase the number of licenses to 16 and allow casinos to be anywhere on the Lake of the Ozarks.
"The theory being that if you're going to spend a million-and-a-half bucks, you might as well get what you want," Hand said.
The initiative petition might even propose to completely get rid of the river proximity constraint and allow casinos to be anywhere in Missouri. Hand said other "powerful" people across the state want this to happen, and his group favors the idea. "Why's it have to be along the river?" he asked. "What makes Boonville great and Lebanon not?"
After conducting polling, Hand said he is confident the measure would pass if it gets on the ballot. He said it faced substantial opposition locally and in rural, conservative areas, especially in the southwest part of the state, which he speculated could be due to "strong religious overtones."
"If you're morally opposed, you missed that vote because, in 1994, it was legal(ized)," Hand said, referring to the statewide vote that allowed riverboat casinos.
With the support of urban areas, Hand said the initiative petition would have enough statewide support to comfortably pass; however, he said local critics were "anti-tourism."
"There is a lot of ill-informed mouths talking on Facebook and otherwise here," Hand said. "It's typically the people that grew up here and have seen this place grow, and they don't like it."
Pollock opposes the measure going on a statewide ballot because she said it goes against local government control. "I don't think all of Missouri needs to vote on what'll happen locally to our area."
Hand affirmed his confidence in passing the initiative petition. "It doesn't matter what they think locally. It's a constitutional change which requires a statewide vote. We're confident that, if it's on the ballot, it'll pass."