Recent news that a group of local investors is spearheading an effort to bring gaming to the lake area has generated a considerable amount of discussion – some of it legitimate and some of it not.

Float the idea of a casino at the Lake of the Ozarks and heads turn, ears perk up and social media erupts. 

Recent news that a group of local investors is spearheading an effort to bring gaming to the lake area has generated a considerable amount of discussion – some of it legitimate and some of it not. The reaction has ranged from claims that a casino would increase crime and push the boundaries of morality, to how a gambling boat would increase employment, boost economic development and bring economic stability to the area.

At the heart of the effort is a Missouri House of Representatives resolution (HJR-87) authored by State Rep. Rocky Miller that would add the Osage River to the locations where gaming is allowed. Only the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were included in the original ballot initiative approved by voters in 1994. A subsequent legislative action limited the number of licenses to 13. 

Representative Miller’s House Joint Resolution would authorize the General Assembly to permit lotteries, gift enterprises and games of chance to be conducted on excursion gambling boats and floating facilities on a portion of the Osage River from Bagnell Dam to the Missouri River. The initiative would ask voters to amend the state constitution to allow casinos on the Osage River below the dam. The legislation does not ask for an expansion of the licenses beyond 13, but would allow the Osage River to be included on the list of authorized waterways so if a license becomes available a casino could be considered here.

Note that the resolution in its present form would allow a casino below Bagnell Dam, and not on the Lake of the Ozarks as some on social media have claimed. It also should be noted that the original legislation allows gambling boats within 1,000 feet of an approved river, which in this case would be the Osage River.

Tim Hand, a lake-area financial and business consultant, is heading up Osage River Gaming, the group of investors behind the effort to bring a gambling boat to the lake area. He has carried the torch for Osage River Gaming thus far.

However, a prominent lake-area business family has stepped forward as one of the major investors.

Steve Kahrs, whose family owns Osage Catfisheries, Inc., said last week that Kahrs Family Properties is one of the investors. He declined to name others but said those individuals would be made public as the gambling boat issue evolves.

“We don’t have a dog in the hunt,” he told The Lake Sun recently. “We just want to see something that will bring the lake community back as far as economic development is concerned.”

He pointed to stagnant retail sales growth for the city of Osage Beach in recent years, and only slight gains in Lake Ozark.

“To our group that is unacceptable. Something needs to give,” he said.

Kahrs believes casino gambling would be a major boon to not only the lake area but to south central Missouri. Cape Girardeau in extreme southeast Missouri has one of two gaming licenses south of I-70 (the other being in Caruthersville in the Bootheel). Southern Missouri residents now travel to Oklahoma and Illinois to visit gaming facilities, and in 2018 Arkansas legalized gambling in several counties.

“It’s a market share we’re losing to these other states,” he noted.

Kahrs has faith that Hand, with the investors behind him, will be successful. There is a set number of principal investors, with other working partners behind the scenes. Kahrs, his family and Osage River Gaming officials are in complete support of Representative Miller’s House Joint Resolution.

“We’re happy with the way it (the legislative movement) is going now. If it fails, we're very well prepared to take the next step,” he said.

He added that since Osage River Gaming has announced its plans, other gaming interests are taking the group more seriously with regard to gaming at the lake.

If the legislative effort fails, Hand said Osage River Gaming has the appropriate resources and is prepared to circumvent the legislature and undertake a citizens’ ballot initiative for the same purpose. 

“One way or another,” Hand said, “we will prevail.”

Hand sees the potential for economic gain for the lake area.

Quoted in a previous Lake Sun article, Hand said: “Lake of the Ozarks is undisputedly the largest and most dominant tourist destination in Missouri, and perhaps the entire Midwest. The entire lake economy is centered on recreation and entertainment, yet the citizens, businesses and tourists to this great vacation spot have no access to gaming and casino entertainment and the associated ancillary activities. It is important to note that weekly buses take people from the lake area to gamble in Booneville and neighboring states. The town of Boonville has a casino because of its proximity to the Missouri River. But Osage Beach, Lake Ozark, Camdenton and Sunrise Beach have no such access. It makes no sense.”

Proponents say a casino in south central Missouri would bring widespread economic development to the area, and that the broad geographic area south of I-70 was short changed when the 2008 Missouri Gambling Loss Act limited the number of gaming licenses to 13.

Hand, with an extensive background in finance, estimates a gaming venue here would cost $150-$200 million to build and would bring 700 jobs to the area just for the construction phase. He said he believes the Lake of the Ozarks area is a bigger and stronger market for a riverboat casino than Cape Girardeau, which was the most recent location to be licensed. Based on estimates the group has been looking at for more than two years, a riverboat casino could generate as much as $100 million in revenue annually, with as much as $25 million of that in taxes. It would draw more people to the area to augment the off-season when the tourism industry drops off during the winter months, he said.

The riverboat casino industry in Missouri employs nearly 10,000 with an annual payroll of $320 million between the 13 casinos. Annual revenue exceeds $1.5 billion.

Osage River Gaming is located at 4655 Osage Beach Parkway, Suite A #180, Osage Beach; osagerivergaming@gmx.com.

About the Kahrs family

The Kahrs family has owned Osage Catfisheries since 1953 when the late Jim Kahrs founded the company. The Kahrs family has been providing fish and fish products to domestic and international partners for more than 67 years. The family has been recognized as one of Missouri's outstanding agribusinesses. Since the 1970s, Osage Catfisheries has grown and developed relationships with businesses across the United States and around the world. Steve Kahrs and his brother, Pete, operate the business today. Steve is a former member of the Osage Beach Board of Aldermen.

About Tim Hand

Hand retired from the banking industry in 2016 after nearly 30 years. During his career, he served in numerous executive level positions including chief operating officer and president and CEO. He finished his career as the chief operating officer at Luther Burbank Savings in California. Since retirement Hand has served on various banks and other boards of directors and on a part time basis undertaken various consulting engagements for various banks located throughout the country. He has also authored numerous articles on finance, economics, history, politics and aviation.