Possibility of Osage River casino remains dim, but still afloat

Dan Field
newsroom@lakesunonline.com
Casino boat.

The prospects of a casino on the Osage River below Bagnell Dam have dimmed a bit in the last year, but all hope is not lost.

Osage River Gaming, the group of investors behind the development of a casino here, has been in a holding pattern since COVID-19 sidelined its plans when the Missouri Legislature was sent home last spring amid the coronavirus fear, thus ending any legislative leadership.

Tim Hand, a lake-area financial and business consultant, is heading up Osage River Gaming which hopes to someday place a gaming boat downstream of the dam. The group’s legislative champion, former Rep. Rocky Miller, term-limited out at the end of the last legislative session and no one has been earmarked to sponsor legislation.

Miller is a life-long resident of Miller County where the gaming facility would be located. His legislative influence, knowledge of the county and deep roots in the lake area were expected to help carry the casino torch not only in Jefferson City but also in this area.

Rep. Lisa Thomas of Lake Ozark, who filled Miller’s vacant position, to date has remained on the sidelines regarding the issue.

However, Osage River Gaming has identified several current House members that might be willing to sponsor similar legislation, Hand said, and is pursuing those options. 

The intent was to place a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot. The initiative had been approved by two committees involved in the process.

Casino by petition

The other option was an Initiative Petition to get the casino placed on a statewide ballot.

“That process in Missouri is complicated and cumbersome,” Hand said. “All of the signatures must be ‘wet’ and collected in person. Even with the recently somewhat relaxed pandemic, social distancing restrictions effectively prohibit the process at the current time. Given that such an effort would cost at least a million dollars, we have decided to defer that option for now in lieu of the legislative option. We intend to revisit the Initiative Petition If and when the world gets back to normal and/or we strike out in the legislature.”

Gaming restrictions

Riverboat gambling in Missouri is only allowed along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Riverboat casino licenses are capped at 13 because of Proposition A which was approved by voters in 2008. All 13 licenses were active before the pandemic hit. The Missouri Gaming Commission regulates casino gambling.

Then Representative Miller’s House Joint Resolution (HJR87) would have authorized 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 between Bagnell Dam to the Missouri River. The initiative would have asked voters to amend the state constitution to allow casinos on the Osage River below the dam. The legislation did not ask for an expansion of the licenses beyond 13 but would have allowed the Osage River to be included on the list of authorized waterways so if a license became available a casino could be considered here.

Potential

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

Quoted in a 2020 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.”

Before the pandemic, buses took people from the lake area weekly 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, Hand noted.

Proponents say a casino in southcentral 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 several 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.